Rutan, Burt

views updated Jun 11 2018

Rutan, Burt

June 17, 1943 Portland, Oregon

Aerospace engineer

Burt Rutan designed the first privately financed spacecraft to carry an ordinary citizen into space. On a June morning in 2004, Rutan's innovative SpaceShipOne rose from the Mojave Desert in California, flown by test pilot Mike Melvill (c. 1942), climbed through the clouds, and entered space. It was an important date in the history of aviation, and Rutan hoped it would be the start of a new era of adventure travelthat of space tourism.

Built model airplanes

Rutan and his brother, Richard (1938), a former U.S. Air Force combat pilot, have been aviation pioneers for nearly all of their adult lives. Born Elbert L. Rutan on June 17, 1943, in Portland, Oregon, Rutan grew up in Dinuba, a town in California's Central Valley area. The Rutans' father, a dentist, had a pilot's license and owned a small plane. Both Rutan and his brother were fascinated by air travel as youngsters. Dick was five years older than Burt and sometimes refused to let him play with his collection of model aircraft. In response, Burt began building his own.

The Rutan brothers entered model plane contests in the area, and Burt soon became known as a clever designer. One race involved mimicking the fighter planes that land on aircraft carriers. "Burt built a plane that looked like a contemporary Navy fighter," Dick recalled in an interview for Smithsonian with Edwards Park. "Then he worked out how to do a power stall with it. The thing would almost hover over the deck, tail down, engine full on, until he dropped it at exactly the right spot and engaged the arresting gear. He always won."

"I don't care about taking the risk that something won't succeed. That's the big difference between me and the engineers who work in aerospace. Or the managers of the engineers who work in aerospace. They're absolutely frightened of failure."

Before he obtained his own driver's license, Rutan often had his mother take him out on the back roads near their home with one of his new model airplane designs. He instructed her to drive fast, so that he could test the aerodynamics of his latest model plane by holding the plane out the window. Aerodynamics is a scientific term that refers to the study of the effect of air and other gases on objects in motion. When he was in college at California State Polytechnic University, Rutan even built his own small wind tunnel, a device that scientists use to conduct tests in aerodynamics. He installed it atop his Dodge Dart station wagon to help him refine his designs. These experiments led him to build his first full-size plane, which he called the VariViggen.

Founded own company

In 1965 Rutan graduated third in his class at Cal State Polytechnic with an aeronautical engineering degree. He went to work as a civilian flight test project engineer at Edwards Air Force Base, the U.S. military facility near Mojave, California, which is the site of nearly all of the aviation records set in the latter half of the twentieth century. During his seven years there, Rutan helped fixed a troubling flaw in the F-4 fighter jet. The U.S. military had spent a small fortune to build it, but the F-4 sometimes went into flat spins and crashed. Rutan came up with a way to give it better in-flight stability and devised a recovery system for the times it went into a spin.

Breaking Earth's Bounds

September 9, 1908: U.S. Army Lieutenant Frank P. Lahm becomes the first passenger to travel in an airplane. Lahm rides along on a six-minute flight with airplane co-inventor Wilbur Wright at Fort Meyer, Virginia.

March 16, 1926: American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard makes first successful launch of a liquid-fueled rocket, in Auburn, Massachusetts.

October 14, 1947: American pilot Chuck Yeager is recorded as the first human to break the sound barrier of 660 miles per hour in a Bell SX-1 rocket plane.

September 7, 1956: U.S. test pilot Iven C. Kincheloe becomes first person to reach space after being launched from a B-50 U.S. Air Force plane. Kincheloe and his smaller Bell X-2 rocket plane peaked at 126,500 feet above Earth and landed safely. He died in another test flight two years later.

March 30, 1961: American test pilot Joe Walker reaches an altitude of 169,600 feet in an X-15 rocket plane.

April 12, 1961: Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union becomes the first human to orbit Earth.

April 12, 1981: The Columbia space shuttle becomes the first winged vehicle in orbit, and also makes the first runway landing of a spacecraft in history.

April 12, 2001: American Dennis Tito buys a seat on the Russian Soyuz craft and becomes the first tourist in space.

Rutan left Edwards in 1972 to become the director of flight testing for the Bede Aircraft Company in Newton, Kansas. He also continued to work on his own plane designs. But Rutan felt that his innovative ideas would never reach others if he tried to work with traditional airplane manufacturing companies. In June of 1974 he founded the Rutan Aircraft Factory (known as RAF) in Mojave. It produced and sold designs for the VariViggen and other light aircraft that could be built at home by do-it-yourself enthusiasts. RAF quickly became a leader in aviation design, and Rutan a hero among the engineers and pilots who liked to build their own small planes. His VariEze aircraft, for example, was made out of lightweight composite material and had a small extra wing in the nose called a canard. If a plane experienced a problem in mid-flight, the canard lost lift first, not the main wing. This allowed the pilot to stabilize the plane.

For many years Rutan tested his planes himself, or had his brother pilot them. They showed off the newest RAF models at annual Experimental Aircraft Association shows. But Rutan had some near-misses, and quit testing planes after a friend of his died in 1978. His brother, however, was eager to take on one of the final challenges left in aviation: a non-stop, around-the-world flight. Over dinner one evening in 1981, Rutan sketched on a napkin his idea for a new kind of plane. It would have space for enough fuel to make the 24,986-mile trip without stopping to fill the tank. Previously, the distance record was held by a U.S. B-52 bomber, which flew from Okinawa, Japan, to Madrid, Spain, in 1962, without refueling or stopping. U.S. Air Force planes had made similar trips in the 1940s and 1950s, but were refueled in mid-air.

Nine-day flight

The plane that Rutan designed, the Voyager I, made its historic flight in December of 1986. It carried 7,011 pounds of fuel in tanks that looked similar to a pair of outriggers on a canoe. Its cabin, with room for Rutan's brother and his co-pilot, Jeana Yeager (1952), was the size of a small closet. They had to be in a reclining position to fly the plane, which was as loud as a lawn mower. The flight took nine days.

During the entire time, Rutan kept in contact with his brother and Yeager from a command center at Edwards Air Force Base. He talked them through more than one bout of bad weather, including a typhoon over the Pacific Ocean. "Our own data said that the Voyager flight was probably not going to happen," Rutan told Andy Meisler of the New York Times several years later. "We had seven major failures in the 340 hours the plane had flown, and we were planning a 225-hour single flight, almost all over oceans. As far as the pilots' fatigue and their ability to stand up under even moderate levels of turbulence and so on, our data showed they would not even get to the Philippines."

But the Voyager I successfully completed its flight and touched down safely on December 23, 1986. Rutan donated it to the Smithsonian Institution, and then moved on to new challenges. In 1982 he founded another company, Scaled Composites Inc., which was an aerospace prototype development firm. It created prototype models for new aircraft, but Rutan also took on other interesting jobs that required solving aerodynamics challenges. He designed an eighty-five-foot rigid sail that was used on the winning yacht in the 1988 America's Cup race. In 1992 he created an "Ultralite" show car for General Motors Corporation, which was made of lightweight plastics composites. In 1996 he rolled out the Boomerang, a unique asymmetrical twin-engine plane capable of speeds of three hundred miles per hour. He designed an adjustable-wing aircraft capable of high altitudes, called the Proteus, which made its first flight on July 26, 1999.

Became the first company in space

Rutan spent the next several years working on a new pet project, which he called SpaceShipOne. It was funded by Paul Allen (1953), a co-founder of Microsoft, and cost an estimated $20 million. Space-ShipOne was a passenger rocket that could be carried aloft by a larger plane, also built by Rutan and his company, called the White Knight. The passenger rocket and its test pilot could then be launched into space once it reached a certain altitude.

Rutan and Allen were trying to win the Ansari X Prize with SpaceShipOne. The new aviation challenge had been announced in 1996, and had a deadline of January 1, 2005. A $10 million award would be given to the first privately funded group to fulfill the following requirements: that their craft hold three people, reach the 62.5-mile-high sub-orbital flight, and repeat the launch again within a two-week period. Sub-orbital space is where the laws of gravity that govern Earth's physical properties end and weightlessness begins.

Rutan's longtime dream of conquering space with one of his planes came true on June 21, 2004. Mike Melvill, a pilot and employee of Rutan's, climbed aboard SpaceShipOne, which was then launched by the White Knight. After a successful flight, the plane landed safely on an airstrip at the Mojave Airport. Melvill told reporters at a press conference immediately afterward that he had been able to see the curve of Earth, and that he also tossed some M&M candies he had carried aboard in his pocket. He was delighted to see them spin in front of him instead of dropping, since the laws of gravity no longer applied. This was the first successful test flight of a privately funded spacecraft, and made headlines around the world that day.

Imagined ultimate daredevil ride

Rutan watched the successful SpaceShipOne voyage from the ground in Mojave. He hoped that a new niche in adventure travel would begin thanks to his company's extraordinary feat. He imagined that space tourists might pay to visit "a kind of astronauts' training school, if you will," as he explained to Daily News writer Deborah Hastings. "In some place like Cancun. It would be like a regular two-week vacation with great food and things to do at night. It's kind of like a ride at Magic Mountain.... It isn't just a roller coaster ride. You are officially added to the list of astronauts."

Much of Rutan's work takes place at hangars near his unique pyramid-shaped home in Mojave, California. After the notorious disasters that occurred on two U.S. space shuttle flights, he was even more firmly convinced that his company's planes would serve the twenty-first century's next generation of pioneers. "Entrepreneurs developed the airplane," he reminded New York Times journalist Andrew Pollack, "not governments."

For More Information


Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement. Vol. 20. Detroit, MI: Gale Group, 2000.


Bailey, John. "Rutan's Racer Has Wraps Removed." Flight International (April 10, 1991): p. 5.

Bigelow, Bruce V. "Rocket Plane Source of Pride for Designer, Poway, Calif., Firm." Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News (December 18, 2003): p. ITEM03352173.

Bigelow, Bruce V. "San Diego-Area Aircraft Designer Has a Qwest to Bring Space within Reach." Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News (April 29, 2003): p. ITEM03119032 .

Bostwick, Charles F. "Rutan Unveils Privately Funded Spacecraft." Daily News (Los Angeles) (April 19, 2003): p. N1.

Carreau, Mark. "Privately-Financed Team Will Try to Send Man into Space." Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News (June 3, 2004): p. ITEM04155061.

Costello, Carol and Miles O'Brien. "The Rutan Brothers." America's Intelligence Wire (from CNN News) (December 17, 2003). This article can also be found online at

Hastings, Deborah. "Iconoclast of Aircraft Design Refuses to Work by the Book." Daily News (Los Angeles, CA) (July 8, 1996): p. SC1.

Lemonick, Michael D. "Voyager's Triumph; A Flying Fuel Tank Sets Records." Time (July 28, 1986): p. 53.

Meisler, Andy. "Slipping the Bonds of Earth and Sky." New York Times (August 3, 1995): p. C1.

O'Brien, Miles, Bruce Burkhardt, and Kathleen Koch. "Wright Stuff; A Century of Flight-Part 1." America's Intelligence Wire (from CNN News) (December 13, 2003). This article can also be found online at

Park, Edwards. "The Voyager's Bid to Girdle the Globe Is No Mere Canard." Smithsonian (February 1985): p. 72.

"Pilot Guides Private Plane Out of Atmosphere, a First." New York Times (June 21, 2004).

Pollack, Andrew. "A Maverick's Agenda: Nonstop Global Flight and Tourists in Space." New York Times (December 9, 2003): p. G5.

"Private Rocket Plane Unveiled by Burt Rutan." Advanced Materials & Composites News (May 5, 2003).

Schwartz, John. "Private Space Travel? Dreamers Hope a Catalyst Will Rise from the Mojave Desert." New York Times (June 14, 2004).

Skeen, Jim. "Private Spaceship Makes Supersonic Flight from Mojave, Calif., Airport." Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News (December 18, 2003): p. ITEM03352038.

Stone, Brad. "Let's Go to Space! One Hundred Years After the Wright Brothers' Famous Flight, a New Breed of Entrepreneur Is Pushing New Technologies to Their Limits, Turning Science Fiction into Reality." Newsweek (October 6, 2003): p. 54.

Sugar, Jim. "Boomerang!" Popular Mechanics (November 1996): p. 50.

"Tier One: Rutan Enters the Space Race with a Radical Design Now in Testing." Popular Science (December 1, 2003): p. 42.

Burt Rutan

views updated May 11 2018

Burt Rutan

Burt Rutan (born 1943) has been described as a visionary and as the single most influential designer of aircraft and airframes in the last half of the twentieth century. His ideas have affected military and general aviation aircraft and air transports designed for repeated use in shuttling passengers and cargo into space.

Rutan was the primary force behind the conceptualization, design, and development of the world-flight Voyager airplane, the only airplane to fly a non-stop, non-refueled flight around the world. The Voyager was piloted by Burt's brother, Richard (Dick) Rutan and Jeana Yeager. It flew around the world from December 14 to Deceber 23, 1986. The plane took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California and landed there nine days, three minutes and forty four seconds later.

Elbert L. Rutan was born on June 17, 1943, in Portland, Oregon, and grew up in the Central Valley town of Dinuba, California. He was the second of three children in the family of George and Irene Rutan. His father was a dentist. Besides his brother, Dick, he has a sister.

The Rutan brothers demonstrated an interest in planes at an early age. As children, they would have their mother drive them late at night on deserted roads in the then sparsely populated Central Valley to test model airplane designs. Mrs. Rutan would drive while Burt and Dick held their airplane models outside the car in attempts to determine how their models would react in flight. Burt Rutan kept up the practice, and tested numerous aircraft designs well into his college days by driving at high speeds in open cars late at night.

His fascination with airplanes prompted Rutan to attend the California State Polytechnic University, where he successfully pursued a degree in aeronautical engineering. He was third in his graduating class in 1965. Additional course work was taken at the Space Technology Institute at the California Institute of Technology and the Aerospace Research Pilot's School at Edwards Air Force Base. Rutan also took courses in marketing and personnel management at Golden Gate College.

Trained at Edwards Air Force Base

Rutan worked for the United States Air Force as a civilian flight test project engineer at Edwards Air Force Base from 1965 through 1972. While working at Edwards Air Force Base, Rutan was credited with solving a problem involving the vaunted F-4 fighter jet. The multi-million-dollar aircraft was known to go into flat spins and crash. The basic problem was ensuring the jet aircraft's in-flight stability. Rutan developed a spin-recovery system that fixed the problem, preventing the grounding of a fleet of F-4 jets.

In an interview conducted by Joe Godfrey and copyrighted by the The AVweb Group, Rutan talked about the training he had received in working for the U.S. Air Force. "I do consider myself an expert in flying qualities, and the development of flying qualities through flight tests and so on, and the reason is in the first seven years out of college that's all I did, flying qualities flight test. I never did any performance flight test. I was a specialist on flying qualities for about 13 different programs and so I came out of that a recognized expert. When I say 'recognized expert,' I wrote MIL 83-691, which was the Air Force's spec for testing stall and spin in all types of airplanes. I still think today, even though I don't do a lot of flying, I can get in an airplane and have a good feel for what it needs to improve it and how to do it. I'm not an expert in hardly anything but that, that one thing I would claim."

In March, 1972, Rutan took that training to the Bede Aircraft Company, in Newton, Kansas, where he was named director of the Bede Test Center. He held that position for just over two years.

Rutan Aircraft Factory

In June 1974, Rutan returned to California, founding the Rutan Aircraft Factory (know as RAF) to develop light aircraft and to market technical and educational documents on aviation.

While he had become well known within the ranks of the US Air Force, Rutan's first real fame came with the building of the VariEze aircraft. The VariEze was one of Burt's earliest creations, and the first to use a pusher type propeller mounted and canard wings. Burt's fame was immediate when his brother Dick flew the VariEze to the annual Experimental Aircraft Association Fly, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 1975. The uniquely designed airplane was the hit of the three-day event.

The Rutan Aircraft Factory introduced a number of airplanes that were designed to be built at home, including the VariEze, the VariViggen, the Quickie, the Defiant and the Long-EZ. Distinctive design features marked these airplanes. Each of them represented a step forward in Rutan's creativity and eminence as a extraordinary designer of aircraft. Rutan's company and his designs changed the way homebuilt aircraft were conceived and built.

Flight of The Voyager

Rutan's greatest visible success was the record-setting Voyager. Round-the-world flight was never accomplished before because of the tremendous challenges it presents for flight capacity and performance of pilots and equipment. Rutan had to design an airplane that could fly 28,000 statute miles without refueling. As a result, the airplane's main cargo would be fuel, which aviators measure in terms of weight. It was to carry 8,934 pounds—nearly 41/2 tons—of 100-octane aviation fuel. That is equivalent to 1,489 gallons of fuel.

To fly that fuel, Burt Rutan designed a 939-pound flying fuel tank with a wingspan of 110.8 feet. The airplane had twin boom tanks that looked similar to outriggers on a canoe, canard wings, vertical stabilizers attached to the boom tanks, and tiny winglets at the end of the main wing for added stability. The twin boom tanks were designed to carry fuel, and helped to distribute the weight of the fuel over the airplane's structure. The airplane was powered by forward and rear-mounted propellers attached to a cigar-shaped pod in the middle of the enormous wing.

Rutan remained in nearly constant contact with the plane's two pilots from the command center at Edwards Air Force Base during the entire flight. He talked the two pilots through a hair-raising encounter with a typhoon over the Pacific Ocean and in skirting thunderstorms in central Africa and over the eastern Atlantic Ocean. He also talked the pilots through the failure of a fuel pump that shut down the engine and nearly caused the plane to crash eight hours before it landed at Edwards Air Force Base.

A Second Business

In the early 1980s, just as he was formulating plans with his brother for the Voyager aircraft, Rutan founded Scaled Composites Inc., a company that designs and develops research aircraft. Rutan launched Scaled Composites in April 1982. In its 18 years of existence, Scaled Composites claims to be the most productive aerospace prototype development company in the world.

Scaled Composites primarily makes proprietary model products for the world's general aviation and military aircraft manufacturers. The company has also been involved with the manufacturing of a special wing used on a yacht that competed in the 1988 America's Cup race, the building of the General Motors Corporation Ultralite show car in 1992, the building of gondolas for hot air balloons, the building of wind generators for electrical power generation, and the building of reusable aircraft that could be used to shuttle passengers and cargo to space.

One of Scaled Composites most renowned designs was the 85 percent scale of the Starship 1 aircraft built by Beech Aircraft Corporation. The Starship was designed as a turboprop corporate aircraft to compete with corporate jets, and its unusual design, which incorporated Rutan's trademark pusher propulsion and canard wings, won numerous awards when it was introduced commercially in 1990. Rutan holds a US patent for the design configuration of the Starship.

The Pond Racer

Another of Rutan's most celebrated project was the Pond Racer, a racing airplane built in 1991 for industrialist and aviation enthusiast, Robert J. Pond. The Pond Racer was built to compete in air races in Reno, Nevada, using vintage World War II aircraft.

In the interview conducted by Joe Godfrey for The AVWeb Group, Rutan recalled the problems that the Pond Racer had: "The Pond Racer was something that a person who had a mission wanted a solution to. His mission was to stop all these guys from destroying a Mustang every year and 12 engines every year at Reno and he wanted new technology in the racer so that it would take over and replace this environment that was destroying war birds. By that standard the project was a failure. You go up to Reno today and they're all war birds, so his mission and the Pond Racer solution to that failed. One of the reasons that it failed is the airplane never really flew with its propulsion system putting out the power. But the problem is it failed because it didn't win."

Rutan's design for the Beech Starship faced similar difficulties. The Starship was seen as a commercial failure, but critical elements of its design and its propulsion system were changed from Rutan's original plans, and pilots criticized the airplane as too slow and too noisy.

The decisions that led to the failure of the Pond Racer and to the lack of commercial success for the Beech Starship never reflected negatively on Rutan. His designs and development efforts always were viewed as both ground-breaking and sound.

Rutan sold Scaled Composites to Beech Aircraft Corporation in June 1985. Beech sold the company in January 1989 to Wyman-Gordon. Rutan was retained as president and chief executive officer through both sales. Scaled Composites employed about 100 workers in early 2000.

Other Projects

Through Rutan Aircraft Factory and Scaled Composites, Rutan has worked on unique design and development programs that include tilt-wing aircraft for Bell Helicopter that combine aspects of helicopters and airplanes, short-take-off-and-landing aircraft that require shorter runways than traditional jet airplanes, concepts for close-air support aircraft for the military, rockets, and crew rescue vehicles for the United States space shuttle program.

One of Rutan's latest projects, is a high-flying, adjustable-wing airplane called Proteus. The Proteus is an all-composite canard aircraft with a 79-foot wingspan that can be expanded to 92 feet, depending on the requirements of its mission or payload. It had its maiden flight July 26, 1999, and is designed to fly at altitudes of more than 50,000 feet for up to 18 hours.

Perhaps Rutan's most daring project is the Roton rocket, a manned satellite launch vehicle. Scaled Composites is working on this project with San Francisco-based Rotary Rocket Co.

Future Projects

Rutan's interest in homebuilt aircraft has not waned. He acknowledged that homebuilt sub-orbital spacecraft may not become popular, or even feasible, for 60 to 70 years. However, such space vehicles are a part of the future he foresees.

Rutan holds three U.S. patents, and has given numerous presentation and papers on aviation topics ranging from highly technical discussions on the flight characteristics of certain airplane wings to talks on how aviation research and development should be conducted. Rutan is a member of eight professional organizations, and holds four honorary doctorate degrees. Included among the many awards he has received is the Presidential Citizen's Medal presented in 1986 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, in recognition of his achievement in the concept, design, and completion of the Voyager journey.

Further Reading

Yeager, Jeana, Dick Rutan, and Phil Patton, Voyager Alfred A.Knopf, 1987.

Rutan, Elbert L. Interview with Joe Godfrey, Copyrighted by the The AVweb Group, (November 18, 1999)

About this article

Burt Rutan

All Sources -
Updated Aug 08 2016 About content Print Topic