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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The VariEze was unique at that time in that it was a fiberglass airplane done without female molds. Normally, you have this outside shape mold, and you lay the fiberglass into it, and you pop out an airplane. Well, these plans were sold for $94, and they were sold all over the world, and capitalizing a factory that would build molds and building parts just wasn’t in the picture then. My product wasn’t an airplane; it was just the plan to build the airplane. So I didn’t want to build a big factory and a big inventory and invest in a lot in tooling.

On the [Mojave] airport was an outfit called Fred Jiran Glider Repair. And they would take the European fiberglass sailplanes that had been damaged.  Sailplanes from all over the U.S. and some from overseas would be shipped to this hangar, and they would repair them. And I watched them do that.

First of all, they didn’t have the factory tools. When they repaired the ones that were built in factory tooling, they’d 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. I had been since I was 10 years old.  And model airplanes by then made their wings with hot wire-cut foam cores. I put both of those ideas together—of repairing fiberglass sailplanes and radio-controlled model wings—and came up with this manufacturing nugget.  You could build an airplane without any molds or tooling.

We later made molds for the cowlings and the wheelpants, but those are the only molded parts for the VariEze.  Everything else you could ship in a box with foam sheets.

A & S: Was this your invention?

Rutan: I wouldn’t say we invented the method of hot-wire cutting cores. That was done with model airplanes.  But we applied it to full-scale manned airplanes. And we also made prototypes: fiberglass fuselages, fuel tanks, canard wings, wings, we made all of these things without tooling. And a lot of those manufacturing methods were unique, new inventions.

A & S: Is it satisfying to work with foam and a fiberglass skin, as opposed to wood and metal?

Rutan: Oh, yeah, it’s wonderful.  In those days we used to use urethane foam, and you could sand it and carve it and shape it so beautifully and easily. You’d go out in your workshop, and when you’d go into dinner, you’ve got something that looks different; whereas, building a metal airplane, you could spend months or years, just hammering out these little pieces that get riveted together.  So you don’t get this sense of accomplishment  or sense of art like you do building a composite airplane. It turned out to be not the most durable foam core, so we switched over to different types of foams later.

The basic manufacturing method on the three EZs was the same.  They all had foam-core cut wings; they all had slabs of foam that you shaped; and then fiberglass both sides for fuselages and fuel tanks and other things. The methods stayed the same.

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