The Magician of Mojave

Burt Rutan remembers the birth of the VariEze and names his favorite aircraft.

Rutan in his VariEze, back in the day. (Courtesy Scaled Composites)
Air & Space Magazine

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Rutan: In 1980, I came out with the improved version. There weren’t many of the Continental 100-horse aviation engines around, and we found out that so many people were building these that they couldn’t find these engines on the used market, and they weren’t manufacturing them any more at Teledyne. So we built a bigger airplane with much more range and some baggage capability—the Long-EZ. And that turned out to be the best homebuilt that I ever did.  Most of the airplanes out there that are Rutan homebuilts are Long-EZs. And they’re very special airplanes in that they have coast-to-coast range. And they have very nice flying qualities.  They use the Lycoming [108-horsepower] engines.

A & S: How would you describe the flying qualities?

Rutan: Just a little lower landing speed. It has better directional stability than a VariEze. It’s not as sensitive and twitchy. It doesn’t feel like a little tiny airplane. It feels like a more solid big airplane. And it is bigger; in fact, the Long-EZ is about as much bigger than the homebuilt VariEze as the VariEze was bigger than the proof-of-concept.

Long-EZ plans were only sold from 1980 to 1985. And after that, I didn’t sell plans for any of the homebuilts. The Defiant sold between ’84 and ’85. The plans were only sold for one year.

A & S: And why is that?

Rutan: Well, after 1982, I ended up founding a new company, Scaled Composites. And I thought, Well, I’m a young guy, and there’s nothing else to do in Mojave; I can run both businesses. And the buildings were 50 feet apart. And I’d go and work on the Voyager in the evenings and race back and go to work on the Starship in the daytime, and I had a family…

A & S: You were working on Voyager and the Starship at the same time?

Rutan: Yeah. Voyager made its first flight in ’84 and the round-the-world flight in ’86.  We founded Scaled Composites in ’82 and we flew the Starship prototype for Beechcraft in ’83. And when the Voyager was making its nine-day flight around the world, I was on nightshift to monitor the flight at our mission control, and during the day, I was working my day job on Starship things, and other airplanes at Scaled.  So anyway, the bottom line was that both businesses were profitable, they were both something that I could easily support my family on, but one of them had a very high product liability exposure that I still have to this day.  I still have these airplanes flying, and regardless of what happens to them—if they run into a mountain with a drunk pilot—there’s still a risk that I could be sued for bad design. So I decided that I should cut off further exposure to product liability, and I stopped selling plans in June of ’85.  So it’s been almost 25 years since I sold a set of plans.

A & S: Why did you choose to build the VariEze from foam and fiberglass?

Rutan: I knew that a metal airplane and a wooden airplane were very work-intensive and took a lot of time. I had built both. The VariViggen was a wooden airplane with the outer wings built out of metal. I did that so I could learn how to build metal airplanes.

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