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: What design philosophy unites all Rutan aircraft?

Well, when I’m not constrained by customers… You could probably look at my aircraft and pick the ones that didn’t have a customer constraint. Some customers show up with a sketch and say, “I want my airplane to look just like this.” The classic example was the Adam [Adam500] push-pull airplane. I tried my best to try to talk them out of that. Push-pull is very noisy; it’s very low-performance, low-range.  By then I was building the Boomerang, which had coast-to-coast range with the same engines and half the fuel flow—an airplane twice as efficient. And I could not talk Rick Adam into doing that. He had most of his flying time in a Cessna Skymaster, which is just an awful airplane. But he wanted something like that. You tend to like the airplane that you have the most time in, even though it’s a terrible airplane.

A & S: Do you have a favorite among all the airplanes you’ve designed?

Rutan: That’s like asking which is your favorite child. I used to say, “the next one.” But if I think about answering that question honestly, I have to say SpaceShipOne. It’s an airplane that had a breakthrough aerodynamic idea—the feathered re-entry. And that really solved one of the big dangers of re-entering the atmosphere. It’s something that I think allowed us to move ahead with a system that’s safe enough to fly the public to space. And we’re using that idea on SpaceShipTwo. There’s a lot of innovative things in SpaceShipOne: that cantilevered hybrid rocket motor, the avionics, the removable nose. Just everything about it. And that was the last airplane that I did almost all of the CAD drawings for. Even the flight controls, landing gear, the systems, and so on. I was so engrossed in that that I would be in there Sundays and evenings, making drawings for things to be built the next day. I shy away from that in my plan to establish a whole new generation of people who do that—other than me. So SpaceShipOne was the last airplane that I designed, really.

I did concept design on the ones after that. But White Knight and SpaceShipOne were my last designs. Now I look over the shoulder of an engineer making drawings, and I suggest to him doing things differently here and there. I don’t make the drawings myself, and I don’t say that this is a Burt Rutan design. SpaceShipTwo is not a Burt Rutan design. Whenever I get a chance to, I bring those people forward—at a rollout or an unveiling—and say, Here’s the guy who designed this airplane. It’s not Burt Rutan.

A & S: Do you ever long for what I imagine must have been the simpler days of the RAF, Rutan Aircraft Factory, before Scaled Composites?

You know, it was a lot of fun. But keep in mind, I had a family of four then. And every Saturday, we would have 100 or more people show up for a demonstration of the airplane and a little lesson on how to build it. And gosh, we found ourselves doing that on Christmas, holidays, and whatever. We’d never even go to the beach. It was like having three jobs.  So frankly we had a lot of fun working with the people, but once we got free of that, it was like getting out of prison.

But then again, we took a lot of trips.  We went to the Bahamas, we went to Alaska, we went all over the place.  There was an outfit called the VariEze Hospitality Club, and they would do fly-ins.

A & S: What is the process of invention like? What’s your procedure?

Rutan: I don’t think it can be taught.  I think you can create an environment in which people can be innovative. And it’s an environment where you don’t let people feel guilty of failure. In other words, you let them try things that may not work. And you expect that they’ll try a lot of things that don’t work. And once in awhile, they’ll come into something that’s a new, genuine idea. That environment doesn’t exist at the normal airplane factory, but I try to make it exist.

A & S: How do you get your best ideas?  Some people say they get their best ideas in the shower.

Rutan: The shower’s a very good place. Yeah, early morning. Also I get better ideas when I’m traveling than when I’m in Mojave. You know, sitting on an airliner going somewhere. Or sitting on a beach somewhere.  I used to do several off-sites with Brandt Goldsworthy every year. Brandt invented the pultrusion process for composites manufacturing and is the most intriguing person I have ever met regarding methods to produce composite components. He died in 2003.

[He and I would] go out to sit on the beach and take sketchpads and just chat. Hawaii, Mexico, Tahiti… We went all over the place and you know, no new ideas the first couple of days, you kinda have to wait to the end of a five- or six-day break to come up with some new ideas. And it was all done with colored pencils and a sketchpad.

A & S:
Do you still have the sketches?

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