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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A & S: Who wrote the directions that accompanied the plans?

I did.  The idea came from the Simplicity dress patterns. If you buy a pattern to build a dress, what you see there is a sketch, and then a sentence or two or three, and then another sketch, and some more words, another sketch, and they just walk you through building this dress.  Up until that time, there were homebuilt airplanes built from plans, but they were all blueprints. They were something that we would roll out on a table—a big drawing. And then there’d be notes in another book sometimes, or sometimes there’d be nothing but blueprints.

This idea of defining each step in building a homebuilt airplane and then showing a very simple sketch to get that step done—and you check it off and go on to the next step—the idea was to make it bulletproof.  People couldn’t leave things out or make mistakes. And it proved very successful.  It was successful only because we also did a quarterly newsletter, and we found all the problems.  In those days, of course, we didn’t have the Internet. And you worked on the telephone or by snail mail.  And when people would have problems with various parts of the plans, or building it, or have problems flying it, every three months, we’d put out this newsletter, and I did that for, gosh, 30 years—maybe more.  We only stopped about three years ago.

We’d define that the plans aren’t complete unless you also have all the newsletters. Now if we were doing that today, we’d have a basic database of the plans, and we’d answer the question by revising it and putting out a new version on the Web site. But back then to build these homebuilts people would also have to have a dozen or more newsletters, and would have to go through and red pencil the owners’ manual or the plans, and make corrections and add hints and improvements, and so on.

A & S: Did that technique have an impact on the homebuilt market?

Rutan: A lot of people copied that. The Cozys and the Velocitys—almost all the homebuilts after that, they pretty much copied that same format.

A & S: Why do you think the VariEze was so popular so fast?

Rutan: I had been putting out newsletters to help people build the VariViggen. And in 1975, the half a million people who were at Oshkosh saw this [new] airplane. I had my airplane out on the flight line, in front of where they sold ice cream and hot dogs. In those days, you bought a ticket to go into Oshkosh, but you couldn’t go on the flight line, unless you had a pilot’s license and bought another ticket. The people who saw it at Oshkosh in ’75 realized that plans would be available soon. And I had people sending me money saying, Hey I want to get the first set of plans. But I’d just send the money back.  I had a policy not to sell anything I don’t have.

You know I worked for [aircraft designer Jim] Bede, and I saw him go bankrupt doing that. And so I had a very firm policy: Something I sell has to be flight tested thoroughly. I don’t sell them something that I’m going to do next year.

A & S: And what do you think made it the phenomenon that it became?

Rutan: It had natural stall limiting.  And it was a very simple airplane. Engine with a wooden propeller. VariEzes didn’t have a starter or alternator. They were just hand propped. It didn’t have retractable landing gear, just a retractable nose gear.

And it was very unusual in those days to build an airplane in a year of spare time. In fact, it’s still unusual. I met a lot of people who took only six months to build one. We were working full time on ours and we built them in three and a half months. Now there were some who took 15 years to build it, but it was certainly possible to build the airplane in a year.

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