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Burt Rutan

Burt Rutan
Rutan in October 2004
Born (1943-06-17) June 17, 1943
Estacada, Oregon, U.S.
Nationality United States
Occupation Aerospace Engineer & Entrepreneur
Known for Rutan Voyager, SpaceShipOne, Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, Rutan VariEze and Long-EZ, Scaled Composites founder, The Spaceship Company co-founder
Spouse(s) Tonya Rutan
Parent(s) George and Irene Goforth Rutan
Relatives Dick Rutan
Nell Rutan
Awards Living Legend of Aviation (2011)
Daniel Guggenheim Medal (2011)

Elbert Leander "Burt" Rutan (born June 17, 1943) is an American aerospace engineer noted for his originality in designing light, strong, unusual-looking, energy-efficient aircraft. He designed the record-breaking Voyager, which was the first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling, and the sub-orbital spaceplane SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004 for becoming the first privately funded spacecraft to enter the realm of space twice within a two-week period. With his VariEze design, Rutan is responsible for popularizing the canard configuration and moldless composite construction for homebuilt aircraft.

He has five aircraft on display in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., United States: SpaceShipOne, the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, Voyager, Quickie, and the VariEze.[1]


  • Life and career 1
  • Aircraft designs 2
    • Homebuilts 2.1
    • Research aircraft 2.2
    • Performance aircraft 2.3
  • Spacecraft designs 3
  • Global warming 4
  • Retirement 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Life and career

Born in 1943 in Estacada, Oregon, 30 miles southeast of Portland, and raised in Dinuba, California, Rutan displayed an early interest in aircraft design. By the time he was eight years old he was designing and building model aircraft. His first solo flight piloting an airplane was in an Aeronca Champ in 1959. In 1965 he graduated third in his class from the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo) with a BS degree in aeronautical engineering.[2][3]

From 1965 to 1972 Rutan was a civilian flight test project engineer for the U.S. Air Force at Edwards Air Force Base, working on nine separate projects including the LTV XC-142 VSTOL transport and spin tests of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom fighter.[4] He left to become Director of Development of the BD-5 aircraft for Bede Aircraft in Newton, Kansas, a position he held until 1974.[5]

Rutan returned to California in June 1974, to create the Rutan Aircraft Factory. In this business he designed and developed prototypes for several aircraft, mostly intended for amateur builders. His first design, executed while he was still at Bede, was the VariViggen, a two-seat pusher single-engine craft of canard configuration. The canard would become a feature of many Rutan designs, notably the very popular VariEze and Long-EZ.[6]

In April 1982, Burt Rutan founded Scaled Composites, LLC, which has become one of the world's pre-eminent aircraft design and prototyping facilities. Scaled Composites is headquartered in Mojave, California, at the Mojave Air & Space Port.[7] That same year, Beechcraft contracted Rutan's Scaled Composites to refine the design and build the prototype Beechcraft Starship.

In 1995 Rutan was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, in 2004 he was listed as one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World",[8] and in 2005 he received the NAS Award in Aeronautical Engineering from the National Academy of Sciences.[9]

In a 2010 interview, Rutan articulated his motivation for developing suborbital technology projects with SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo. He was developing suborbital spaceflight technology because in this "we can achieve some breakthroughs," making such flight "orders of magnitude safer and orders of magnitude more affordable. I'm taking this step because I think achieving something that has never existed in manned spaceflight – and that is high volume and public access – I think it is important to do that and to do it as soon as possible."[10]

Rutan is married to Tonya Rutan.[11] He retired from Scaled Composites in April 2011. That same year, he became recognized as a Living Legend of Aviation, receiving the Bob Hoover Freedom of Flight Award. In 2012, Rutan spoke on "Innovation and the Space Race" to the World Affairs Council, as recorded on C-Span.[12] Flying magazine ranked him at number 18 on their 2013 list, "51 Heroes of Aviation".[8]

Aircraft designs

Rutan has left an aircraft design legacy from 45 years of work, designing aircraft that are often quite dissimilar from their predecessors. "His airplanes and spacecraft take on all types of sleek shapes and sizes, looking more like the work of a sculptor than an engineer. In all, Rutan has come up with 367 individual concepts — of which 45 have flown."[13]


VariViggen and VariViggen SP

His first design, the VariViggen, which he began building in his garage in 1968, first flew in April 1972. It had the rear wing, forward canard, and pusher configuration design elements which became his trademarks.[6] In lieu of wind tunnel testing, Rutan developed the aerodynamic parameters for the VariViggen using a model rigged atop his station wagon, and measuring the forces while driving on empty roads.

The VariViggen was the Rutan model 27. A new set of outer wings, with winglets, was later developed by Rutan for the VariViggen, producing the VariViggen SP, Rutan model 32. The VariViggen was named in honor of the Saab 37 Viggen, a canard-configured fighter jet developed in Sweden. One VariViggen, built in France and named Micro Star, was powered by two Microturbo TRS-18 jet engines in lieu of the usual piston engine.[14]

VariEze and Long-EZ

The VariViggen design led to the successful[13] Rutan VariEze (pronounced "very easy")[13] homebuilt experimental aircraft designs, in which he pioneered the use of moldless glass-reinforced plastic construction in homebuilts. The prototype made its public debut at the 1975 EAA Convention and Fly-In (now called AirVenture) in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.[15] That same year, his brother Dick Rutan set a world distance record in the under-500 kg (1100 lb) class in the VariEze,[16] and these aircraft went on to set other world records in this class.[17] They were also the first aircraft to fly with NASA-developed winglets.[18] The Long-EZ had a range of 2,010 miles (3,230 km), over twice that of the VariEze.[13]

Vari Eze (1976)

Rutan later revised the VariEze design, providing more volume for fuel and cargo, resulting in the Rutan model 61 Long-EZ, designed to be powered by a Lycoming O-235, although some have used Lycoming O-320s or Lycoming O-360s. The Long-EZ also has a revised wing spar design that is not subject to the 2.5 g positive, 1.5 g negative, maximum load factor limit applied to the VariEze after the discovery of problems with some VariEze wings.[19]


Rutan was approached by Gene Sheehan and Tom Jewett to develop a single-seat personal sport aircraft. Following a preliminary canard project (model 49), a tandem wing configuration was eventually designed, to be powered by an 18 hp Onan industrial engine. The prototype (Rutan model 54) was built in 1977 and registered as N77Q. After 5 months of testing, Quickie Aircraft marketed the aircraft as the Rutan model 54 Quickie in 1978.

Two derivatives of the Quickie were subsequently developed, both expanded to include two seats. Quickie Aircraft had Gary LaGare develop the Q2, while Viking Aircraft developed the Viking Dragonfly.[20]


The Sailplane Homebuilders Association (Now the Experimental Soaring Association) opened a competition for a homebuilt, self-launching sailplane. Rutan designed the model 77 Solitaire for this competition, which it won. The sailplane was canard-configured, with a retractable engine ahead of the cockpit.[21]

Research aircraft


Rutan designed the model 72 Grizzly to investigate the possibility of a STOL canard aircraft. It was retired after testing.[22]

Lotus Microlight

Rutan was approached by Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus Racing, to design a single-seat ultralight aircraft. Again, a canard configuration was developed, the Rutan model 91. Colin Chapman's untimely death brought this project to an end, after the aircraft had flown.[23]

Ames AD-1

In the 1980s NASA issued a contract to Ames Industrial Company of Bohemia, New York to develop a small, low-cost aircraft to investigate Robert T. Jones's (a NASA researcher at NASA's Ames Research Center) oblique wing concept. Ames turned to Rutan, who designed a small, fiberglass airframe, powered by two Microturbo TRS-18 jet engines. This was the Rutan model 35, the Ames AD-1. After completion of the test program, the AD-1 was retired and is now on exhibit in the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California.[24]


A departure from the canard design was the Rutan Boomerang, perhaps one of the unconventional designer's most unconventional aircraft. The aircraft, the model 202 Boomerang, is an asymmetric twin-engine tractor configuration aircraft with one engine on the fuselage and another mounted on a pod. A November 1996 Popular Mechanics feature article said it "looks more like a trimotor that lost its right boom and engine".[25]


Rutan's most recent design, BiPod, is a hybrid flying car. Announced in July 2011, the twin-pod vehicle has a wingspan of 31 feet 10 inches; with the wings reconfigured (stowed between the pods), the car has a width of 7 feet 11 inches and fits in a single-car garage. The design has two 450 cc four-cycle engines, one in each pod, which power a pair of generators that in turn power the electric motors used for propulsion. "Lithium-ion batteries in the nose of each pod will provide power during take off and an emergency backup for landing. With a cruising speed of 100 miles per hour (160 km/h), Scaled Composites says the BiPod 367 would have a range of 760 miles (1,220 km)." The plane can fly at 200 miles per hour (320 km/h) which reduces the range to 530 miles (850 km). "Out on the road, this roadable aircraft, which carries 18 US gallons (68 l; 15 imp gal) of fuel, is expected to have a driving range of 820 miles. It has a claimed electric-only range of 35 miles."[26] Flight controls are in the right pod, road controls (steering wheel and brakes) in the left.[27]

Performance aircraft

Amsoil Racer The Rutan model 68 Amsoil Racer is a racing aircraft of Quickie configuration (1981)


Rutan was approached by his brother Dick about designing an airplane that could fly nonstop, unrefueled around the world, something that had never been done before.[28] Around-the-world flights had been accomplished by military crews using in-flight refueling.[29]

Rutan developed a twin-engined (piston engines, one pusher and one tractor) canard-configured design, the Rutan model 76 Voyager. The pusher engine ran continuously, the tractor engine was used for take-off and initial climb to altitude, then was shut down.[30][31]

The aircraft was first flown with two Lycoming O-235 engines. After development work, it was reengined with a Continental O-200 (modified to include liquid cooling) as the pusher engine and a Continental O-240 as the tractor engine.[32]

As a proving flight, Dick and his partner Jeana Yeager made a record setting endurance flight off the coast of California. In December 1986, they took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California and flew around the world (westward) in nine days, fulfilling the aircraft's design goals. The Voyager was retired and now hangs in the Milestones of Flight exhibit in the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) main exhibit hall,[33] with the Wright Flyer, Spirit of St. Louis and Bell X-1.


Desiring a new personal airplane, Rutan designed a five-seat, single-engined pressurized airplane, the Model 81 Catbird. The airplane was configured as a three-surface aircraft (canard, main wing, and tail). After serving as Rutan's personal airplane, it was retired. The Catbird is notable for winning the CAFE Challenge aircraft efficiency prize in 1993.[34]

Pond Racer

Concerned about the dwindling numbers of World War II aircraft, with many being consumed by use as Unlimited Class racers at the Reno Air Races, Bob Pond contracted Scaled to design an Unlimited Class racer. The result was the Pond Racer. After design studies, a twin-engined, conventional configured layout was chosen. The aircraft was powered by two 1000 hp Electromotive-Nissan VG-30 3-liter GTP piston engines running on methanol. The aircraft was built and tested before delivery to the customer. It appeared at the Reno Air Races in 1991, 1992 and 1993. The aircraft was destroyed in a forced landing crash on September 14, 1993, killing pilot Rick Brickert.[35]


The Model 281 Proteus is a tandem-wing high-endurance aircraft designed by Burt Rutan to investigate the use of aircraft as high altitude telecommunications relays. The aircraft's requirements were designed by Angel Technologies and Its first flights were in 1998. It holds several altitude records, set in 2000.[36]


Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer arriving at Kennedy Space Center in 2006 during its second circumnavigation

On March 3, 2005, the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, an aircraft similar to the Voyager design, but built by Rutan's new company Scaled Composites, with stiffer materials and a single jet engine, completed the first solo non-stop, non-refueled flight around the world with adventurer Steve Fossett as pilot. Reducing weight was critical to the design, and Rutan is quoted as facetiously telling his staff that when they finish building a part, they must throw it up in the air for a weight test, and "If it comes down, it's too heavy".[37] Between February 7, 2006 – February 11, 2006, Fossett and the GlobalFlyer set a record for the longest flight in history: 41,467.53 km (25,766.73 mi), the third absolute world record set with this aircraft[38] before being flown to the NASM Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Global Flyer is the sixth vehicle designed by Burt Rutan in the NASM collection.[39]

Spacecraft designs

SpaceShipOne June 21, 2004
(L-R) Marion Blakey, Mike Melvill, Sir Richard Branson, Burt Rutan, Brian Binnie and Paul G. Allen reflect on a mission accomplished in 2004
Mike Melvill and Burt Rutan speak to the media after the first flight into Space


Rutan made headlines again in June 2004 with SpaceShipOne, which became the first privately built, flown and funded manned craft to reach space. The project, named "Tier One" (later known as Tier 1b), was developed and flown by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a joint venture between Rutan's Scaled Composites and co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen. On October 4, SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize, completing two flights within two weeks, flying with the equivalent weight of 3 persons, and doing so while reusing at least 80% of the vehicle hardware. The project team was honored with the 2004 Collier Trophy, awarded by the National Aeronautic Association for "greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America." The craft embodies Rutan's unique style, and is another of the "icons of flight" displayed in the NASM Milestones of Flight exhibit.[40]

SpaceShipTwo Project

Virgin Galactic—an offshoot of businessman and investor Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, and the parent company of Branson and Rutan's 2005 spacecraft manufacturing startup The Spaceship Company—announced that it would begin space tourism flights in 2008 using craft based on the designs of SpaceShipOne. Dubbed SpaceShipTwo, these new craft, also designed by Burt Rutan, are intended to allow six "experience optimized" passengers to glimpse the planet from 70–80 miles up in suborbital space. Production of the first of five planned SpaceShipTwo craft has started, but commercial flights did not begin in 2008 as planned. An explosion at the Scaled Composite factory at the Mojave Spaceport on July 26, 2007, which killed three engineers and seriously injured three others, may have contributed to the delay. They were testing components for SpaceShipTwo, but as of August 2007 Scaled Composites remained dedicated to perfecting the design of SpaceShipTwo.[41] Virgin continues to work on developing SpaceShipTwo, but it has stopped predicting when commercial spaceflights will begin.[42] A further SpaceshipTwo accident on October 31, 2014 (VSS Enterprise tail number: N339SS) resulted in the death of pilot Michael Alsbury and injuries to the copilot.[43]

Rutan was also working with t/Space in the mid-2000s on the development of an air launched, two-stage-to-orbit, manned spacecraft. It was intended to have a taxi capacity to carry passengers to the International Space Station. In June 2005, air drop tests of quarter scale mockups verified the practicality of air release and rotation to vertical.[44]

SpaceShipOne now hangs in the NASM in Washington D.C. with the Spirit of Saint Louis and Bell X-1 "Glamorous Glennis"

White Knight Two

On July 28, 2008, Richard Branson unveiled Scaled Composites White Knight Two "Eve," at the Mojave Spaceport. The jet-powered cargo aircraft is based on SpaceShipOne's successful mothership, White Knight, which itself is based on Proteus. Flight tests were set to begin in September 2008.[45][46] The launch customer of White Knight Two is Virgin Galactic, which will have the first 2 units, and exclusive rights to the craft for the first few years. In 2008, Branson predicted that the maiden space voyage would take place within 18 months: "It represents... the chance for our ever-growing group of future astronauts and other scientists to see our world in a completely new light." Virgin Galactic contracted Rutan to build the mothership and spacecraft.[47][48]

Global warming

On July 29, 2009, Burt Rutan drew a full house for his presentation at the Experimental Aircraft Association's EAA AirVenture 2009 Oshkosh Conference entitled "Non-Aerospace Research Quests of a Designer/Flight Test Engineer" where he discussed his thoughts on his hobby of global warming.[49] He then updated and extended his Oshkosh presentations in 2010 and 2011.[50][51]

While admitting in his presentation that he was not a climate scientist, Rutan stated he spent most of his career on data analysis and interpretation and how it is used or misused.

"I put myself in the (Those who fear expansion of Government control) group, and do not hide the fact that I have a clear bias on Anthropogenic global warming (AGW). My bias is based on fear of Government expansion and the observation of AGW data presentation fraud – not based on financial or any other personal benefit. I merely have found that the closer you look at the data and alarmists’ presentations, the more fraud you find and the less you think there is an AGW problem... For decades, as a professional experimental test engineer, I have analyzed experimental data and watched others massage and present data. I became a cynic; My conclusion – “if someone is aggressively selling a technical product whose merits are dependent on complex experimental data, he is likely lying”. That is true whether the product is an airplane or a Carbon Credit."

He describes his interest on the climate change topic as deriving from his "interest in technology, not tree hugging".

Rutan will also not interview with Scientific American, as he claimed that the magazine has "...improperly covered man-made global warming. They drink Kool-Aid instead of doing research. They parrot stuff from the IPCC and Al Gore."[52]


On November 3, 2010, Scaled Composites announced the retirement of Burt Rutan:

"Burt Rutan, founder of aerospace research firm Scaled Composites in 1982, has announced his plans to retire in April 2011. He currently serves as Scaled’s chief technical officer and, following his retirement, Burt will assume the title of founder and chairman emeritus. Burt has worked in California's Antelope Valley for more than 45 years, initially as flight test project engineer for the Air Force and in 1974 he founded the Rutan Aircraft Factory to develop experimental aircraft for homebuilders."[53]

“Burt is known worldwide as a legendary genius in aircraft design in the aviation world. I am very fortunate and proud to have worked by his side for the past 28 years,” says President Douglas B. Shane. “We wish Burt and his wife, Tonya, the very best the future holds for them.”[53]

On April 1, 2011, Rutan retired from Scaled Composites to his home in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. He said that he is working on one more innovative design.[13]

In July 2011, this was revealed to be a hybrid flying car, the Model 367 BiPod.[26] Working as an individual out of his home in retirement, he is, as of July 2015, nearing completion of a prototype of a new amphibian aircraft, the Rutan SkiGull, intended to be capable of flying between Hawaii and California, taking off or landing on challenging surfaces, including rough seas, grass, snow, or ordinary runways, fueled by ordinary automotive or marine gasoline, and having a secondary electric motor for power assists or emergency landing.[54][55]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b Flying – 51 Heroes of Aviation
  9. ^
  10. ^ Burt Rutan, Aerospace Engineer, BigThink, interview with Burt Rutan, March 3, 2010, accessed March 6, 2010. Video segment at 8:40 ff.
  11. ^
  12. ^ Burt Rutan, Innovation and the Space Race, World Affairs Council, Univ. No. Florida, Jacksonville, FL Nov. 27, 2012
  13. ^ a b c d e
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ "FAI Record ID #1898 – Distance over a closed course" Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). Retrieved: September 14, 2014.
  17. ^ List of records established by the 'Rutan VariEze'. Accessed January 5, 2006.
  18. ^ Winglets by Gail S. Langevin of NASA. Accessed January 5, 2006.
  19. ^ [1] RAF service bulletin published on Accessed February 20, 2010.
  20. ^
  21. ^ entry
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ Boomerang!. Accessed January 5, 2006.
  26. ^ a b
  27. ^ , pp. 42-51.
  28. ^
  29. ^ For example, the Lucky Lady II made an around the world flight from February 26, 1949 to March 2, 1949.
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^ CAFE Foundation
  35. ^
  36. ^ FAI world aviation records database, accessed August 30, 2008
  37. ^
  38. ^ List of records established by the 'Scaled Composites M311'. Accessed January 5, 2006.
  39. ^ National Air and Space Museum to Welcome Steve Fossett’s History-Making Airplane for Permanent Display at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Accessed January 5, 2006.
  40. ^ SpaceShipOne Joins the Icons of Flight on Display at Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Accessed January 5, 2006.
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^
  46. ^
  47. ^, Branson unveils space tourism jet
  48. ^, Virgin Galactic rolls out SpaceShipTwo's 'mothership'
  49. ^
  50. ^ Burt Rutan, An Engineer's Critique of Global Warming "Science‟, July 2010 Oshkosh
  51. ^ Burt Rutan, An Engineer's Critique of Global Warming "Science" Ver 4.3 Jan. 2011
  52. ^ Cohen, David. The Maverick of Mojave (Opinion Interview), New Scientist, January 30, 2010, Issue 2745, pg.26. Retrieved via March 10, 2010.
  53. ^ a b
  54. ^
  55. ^

External links

  • The Ultimate Online Resource on Every Known Rutan Project
  • Chrysler Design Award webpage
  • Online biography
  • Biography from House Committee on Science
  • National Aviation Hall of Fame biography
  • Burt Rutan at TED
  • "The real future of space exploration" (TED2006), Monterey, CA; recorded February 2006 (duration: 20 min)
  • SpaceShip One
  • Rutan talk at the 2012 "The UP Experience" conference, Houston, Texas; recorded October 25, 2012 (duration: 26 min)
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