Burt Rutan hadn’t intended to start a homebuilders’ revolution in 1975; he just wanted to break a record. He’d been experimenting with canards —airfoils mounted forward of the wings — and hoped to demonstrate that an aircraft equipped with them would outperform conventional types. He was thinking about getting into the homebuilt market, and setting a record, he reasoned, would sell a lot of plans.
He wanted to build his record contender quickly, and be able to modify it easily, so he scrapped the aluminum prototype he was working on and borrowed construction techniques from a business that repaired fiberglass sailplanes at Mojave Airport, near his shop. The repair business didn’t have factory tooling. For repairs, Rutan says, “they would put in position the foam core and then they’d fiberglass both sides. And I got the inspiration from that and also from something else: I was a model airplane guy since I was 10 years old. And model airplanes then made their wings with hot-wire-cut foam cores. And I put both of those ideas together — of repairing fiberglass sailplanes and building radio-controlled model wings —and came up with this method whereby you could build an airplane without any molds.”
In August 1975, during the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual celebration of homebuilding in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, N4EZ, powered by a Volkswagen engine and piloted by Rutan’s brother, Dick, set a closed-course distance record by flying 1,638 miles without landing. The airplane caused such a sensation that the following year, when Rutan issued the plans for the VariEze, a greatly modified design that accommodated a heavier engine, he sold 100 sets the first day. Over the next three years, he sold 4,500.
“Rutan’s great innovation,” says Russ Lee, a curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum, “was simplifying the basic construction process. He saved homebuilders hundreds of hours of cutting out pieces of wood.”
Before the VariEze, homebuilders needed skills in woodworking and, often, metalworking. Rutan’s customers built the VariEze by using a hot wire to cut foam in the shape of the full-size templates that came with the plans. They then covered the pieces and joined them with high-strength epoxy and sheets of fiberglass.
The VariEze builder’s manual opens with Rutan’s manifesto: “It is our intent to drastically reduce the non-completion rate common to homebuilt aircraft.” Sprinkled with cartoons, the directions in the manual have an easygoing, conversational tone. Each step is accompanied by an estimate of the time it should take, which does not include “discussing your workmanship with friends that stopped by to help.” Rutan’s inspiration? Simplicity dress patterns. He says, “If you buy a pattern to make a dress, what you see there is a sketch, and then a sentence or two or three, and then another sketch, and they just walk you through building this dress.”
Of course neither the construction process nor the directions would have mattered had Rutan’s aircraft not looked so singular or performed so well. It is designed so that as soon as the canards stop producing lift, at a certain angle of attack, the airplane automatically noses down sharply. The nose-down attitude keeps the main wings from stalling and makes the aircraft virtually stall-proof. Its winglets — the VariEze was the first aircraft to fly with them — decrease drag, boosting climb rate and cruise speed.
The VariEze carries its engine in the rear, where it drives a pusher propeller. To keep the weight of the engine from tipping the parked aircraft backward and damaging the prop, Rutan created one of the aircraft’s more exotic features: a nose gear that the pilot retracts after parking, enabling the VariEze to bow. Worried about scuffing the nose, Rutan suggested that builders affix some type of bumper under it; he used a hockey puck.
By 1985, Rutan had sold 12,000 sets of plans for the VariEze and its bigger, better performing brother, the LongEZ, which Rutan calls “my best homebuilt.”