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Rutan at Oshkosh
Burt Rutan was the center of attention at the recent AirVenture event in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (credit: E. Hedman)

The wit and wisdom of Burt Rutan


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Each summer there are two very large gatherings in the state of Wisconsin. The first, Summerfest, is the world’s largest musical festival. The second, and the one I enjoy the most, is the EAA AirVenture Fly-In held in Oshkosh usually at the end of July or early in August. The Fly-In makes Wittman Regional Airport the busiest airport in the world for one week each year.

Rutan also answered the question most people wanted to know: why does he wear the mutton-chop sideburns? His answer: to honor the King. He’s a huge Elvis Presley fan.

This year the EAA AirVenture had two themes. One was the 100th anniversary of naval aviation. The second was a tribute to the career of Burt Rutan. I will reiterate to anyone who asks that you have to put this event on your bucket list. It is worth attending. You will see many things of interest including some that have a strong tie to space. The EAA has discovered that people interested in general aviation are often interested in space, so the space themes are increasing.

You cannot talk about AirVenture without mentioning what you can see across the board with all types of aircraft. The flying aircraft on display ranged from a re-creation of a 1909 Bleriot that was built specifically for and flown in the movie Amelia. There were many homebuilt aircraft, including hundreds using Burt Rutan’s designs. There were dozens if not hundreds of current and vintage military aircraft, including the unusual sight of an F-16C that had run off the end of the runway into mud, collapsing the nose landing gear.

Lessons from Rutan’s aircraft development

I attended four presentations over two days that featured Burt Rutan. From these presentations I think I have a better understanding of how he thinks and works. To understand the direction he has taken in designing a suborbital spacecraft you have to understand his journey from childhood as an airplane modeler through his stint working for the Air Force, to his stretch running Rutan Aircraft Factory and finishing his career with Scaled Composites.

During the presentations he spoke about aircraft and spacecraft design. He spoke about stories of adventures along the way. He also answered the question most people wanted to know: why does he wear the mutton-chop sideburns? His answer: to honor the King. He’s a huge Elvis Presley fan. He also answered the question people who are interested in building their own airplane most want to know: how long does it take to the average homebuilder to build an airplane? His answer was “one and a half wives.”

As child Burt Rutan wanted to play sports in high school, but his family’s religious beliefs kept him from taking part in anything that required activities on Saturdays. So he developed a strong interest in designing model aircraft and flying. This included designing a model that set a flight endurance record. He also took flying lessons and earned his pilot’s license.

After college Burt Rutan was hired by the Air Force and set to work on solving stability problems with the F-4 Phantom. The jet fighter had 61 crashes due to stability issues. In addition, he witnessed the fatal crash of an X-15 piloted by Mike Adams at Edwards Air Force Base that was also caused by stability issues. This was a key step in his career because he started valuing flight stability in aircraft and, later, spacecraft, as extremely important. The focus on stability can be seen in his aircraft designs ranging from his kit-built designs (VariViggen, VariEze, and Long-EZ) with canards, through the asymmetrical Boomerang, the Beech Starship, and the wing feathering mechanism on SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo.

When he spoke about his designs he talked about having a gut feel for design knowing from experience what would work. He said that it was important to be a designer before his training as an engineer to develop the creative side and to develop a gut feel. His impression is that someone who goes through formal education in engineering without having designed things is more of an analysis person and less of a creative engineer. In school he didn’t like math until he took a physics class and could start to understand how math was applied.

The goal of flying around the world without refueling is not unlike flying to orbit in one key respect. It requires a vehicle that by weight is mostly fuel.

Burt Rutan’s first homebuilt kit was the VariViggen from Rutan Aircraft Factory, which was unusual in several ways. It has canards in front with the main wing towards the back of the aircraft. It is made from composites and has a pusher engine in the back. It had a look that compared to other small aircraft that was well ahead of its time. He was inspired by the Swedish Saab Viggen jet fighter that had canards for greater maneuverability and stability, and thus greater resistance to stalling throughout a wide flight regime. He kept advancing the design through a series aircraft that built on what he had done with earlier designs. Constant testing that keeps pushing the envelope is his philosophy of design, test and improve.

The EAA and Burt Rutan have been good for each other. He sold plans at a ten-by-ten-foot booth each summer at the EAA. The EAA booth was responsible for thirty percent of his annual plan sales for Rutan Aircraft Factory. In turn, the home builders building from these plans have become regular attendees at the EAA.

On the evening of July 29 there was a session to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the flight of the Rutan Model 76 Voyager, which circumnavigated the globe without refueling in 1986 piloted by Dick Rutan (Burt’s brother) and Jeana Yeager. This session had a panel that included Burt Rutan, Dick Rutan, and Mike Melvill. The story of how the idea for tackling the last remaining record in aviation is quite illustrative of how he goes about developing an aircraft or spacecraft.

According to the entry in Wikipedia, the design for Voyager started on the back of a napkin in a restaurant. The story, though, is not completely accurate. Burt Rutan did a drawing on the back of a napkin for his brother Dick and Jeana Yeager, Dick’s girlfriend at the time, at the Overpass Restaurant. However, he had already worked on the concept back at his office. Flying all the way around the world without refueling was a major jump over the longest previous unrefueled flight of approximately 19,300 kilometers (12,000 miles) accomplished by a B-52.

The goal of flying around the world without refueling is not unlike flying to orbit in one key respect. It requires a vehicle that by weight is mostly fuel. The Voyager aircraft was 73 percent by weight fuel when it took off on its round-the-world flight. This fact required the aircraft to be, in effect, a flying gas tank, with tanks tucked throughout the entire structure. In addition it required, like many crewed spacecraft, a tiny cockpit with very little room to move around. The ability of the crew to endure the flight was considered a big risk in the chance for success.

In order to build an airplane light enough and strong enough to fly all the way around the world composites was the only option. The wings and spars had to be filled with fuel. The plane had to have a system that could selectively pull fuel from 17 different tanks to maintain an even distribution of weight around the airframe so it would remain stable as the flight progressed. The instruments onboard had to be minimized to save weight. All the concepts are familiar to spacecraft designers.

One of the biggest challenges with Voyager was keeping cost down. They approached one company for making the tooling for the composite wing structure. They were quoted $50,000 and six months. Upon hearing this, Burt Rutan came up with a method to make their own tooling on the cheap. He directed his brother to by some steel C-channel and got access to a machine shop. Three days later, after spending a few hundred dollars on material and with free labor, they had their wing tooling.

A group of volunteers who helped build the aircraft became essential to its success when attempts to raise fund from wealthy individuals and corporations failed. They learned lessons on how difficult it is to raise money. One person after another passed them on to other rich friends without directly saying no. The owner of Caesars Palace was willing to fund them if the flight started and ended in the casino’s parking lot (an impossibility considering the length of the runway they needed). They appreciated Ross Perot saying no quickly so they wouldn’t waste more time.

Since they were on a tight budget they worked out a strategy to get parts, including flight instruments, donated to the cause. At first companies didn’t want to donate; they wanted a sale. The Voyager team told companies that they would buy their product if the vendor would sign an agreement that they could not advertise the fact that their product was aboard the aircraft. Companies usually quickly made the decision to donate.

Paul Allen, who funded the development of SpaceShipOne, wanted the press at the first space flight but not the public. Burt Rutan wanted the public to be welcome and prevailed.

While Burt Rutan has been heavily focused on aircraft stability issues for flight safety, he and his team of people have been willing to take chances to push the envelope. During the flight of one of his designs it was discovered that when flying through rain it would disrupt the laminar flow over the canards at the front of the aircraft, severely decreasing the lift provided by these short front wings. One of his aerodynamicists came up with a solution that was applied to the Voyager aircraft. The solution was not, however, flight tested before Voyager’s round-the-world journey. Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager ran into rain for the first time while flying over the Indian Ocean where a problem with a loss of lift from the canards would have been disastrous. Fortunately the solution worked fine and Voyager continued safely onward. When the Rutan brothers related the story of Voyager, they told of a number of near-disasters that were averted one at a time. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

Spaceship development and retirement

Burt Rutan said that the crash of the X-15 flown by Mike Adams would grind on him. The X-15’s reentry into the atmosphere with too much sideslip was a stability issue. His design for SpaceShipOne and its wing feathering system is his answer to provide “carefree” stability during reentry. He was inspired by a badminton shuttlecock, which always immediately orients itself correctly with the direction of flight.

When Scaled unveiled the design of SpaceShipOne in 2003, an experienced aerodynamicist contacted Rutan and said the design wouldn’t work: it would be subject to entering flat spins. This comes back to Rutan’s point about developing creativity before the analytical skills. He said, “Everything looks nonsensical before it works.” This is also why he likes to keep his designs private before they fly.

The Scaled Composites team never used wind tunnel testing on SpaceShipOne. Burt Rutan said that a wind tunnel only tells you what you already know. In his early aircraft designs his wind tunnel was a Dodge Dart station wagon pulling models on a trailer down a runway. By putting springs and instruments under the wings he was able to measure parameters such as roll moments. He believes that pushing a model through air is more accurate than moving air past a model in a tunnel constrained by walls close to the model. Early testing of the stability of SpaceShipOne was done by throwing a model off of a tower.

Paul Allen, who funded the development of SpaceShipOne, wanted the press at the first space flight but not the public. Burt Rutan wanted the public to be welcome and prevailed. A local developer leased 60 school buses and brought in two schools full of kids to witness the flight. This fits with his philosophy of wanting to inspire the next generation of children to do great things.

After the flights to space in the Mojave Desert, Rutan said wanted to try a flight into space from Oshkosh. When he approached the FAA people who regulate commercial space flight he said, “They looked like they were going to have a heart attack.” Several years ago in Oshkosh he was asked about the possibility of flying to space from the EAA fly-in. He said at the time, “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” I guess the FAA won this issue.

Rutan was asked on a couple of occasions about his opinion on the direction of NASA. He said he is sad at the loss of American exceptionalism. He brought up that in 1961 Alan Shepherd first flew into space in a small capsule and ten years later, in 1971, was golfing on the Moon. He said that if you told someone in 1971 that now we would be buying rides into space from the Russians it would have been considered heresy.

After the flights to space in the Mojave Desert, Rutan said wanted to try a flight into space from Oshkosh. When he approached the FAA people who regulate commercial space flight, he said, “They looked like they were going to have a heart attack.”

Burt Rutan retired from Scaled Composites on April 11th of this year. He has had health issues. In 2009 he suffered from constrictive pericarditis, which nearly killed him. He also has a defibrillator implanted in his chest that he calls his “stand by ignition system” which, fortunately, has never needed to fire. Referring to his health issues, he said that he discovered that if you are in an aircraft and push the throttle forward and pull the stick back that it will take off even without a medical certificate. (Don’t tell anyone.)

During his career he has come up with 367 concepts. Forty-five of his concepts have flown, ten of which had his friend Mike Melvill piloting them on their first flight. He mentioned that some of the concepts that have not seen the light of day are being saved for his biography. I asked him if some of his concepts are currently being worked on by Scaled Composites. He said that since his retirement he is completely staying out of what they are doing.

I asked someone whom I assumed to be Scaled Composites employee—he was wearing a Scaled polo shirt—if they are working on any orbital concepts that would be carried to high altitude by an aircraft like WhiteKnightTwo. He said that Burt Rutan has developed a new concept for reaching orbit that would become apparent in the next couple of years. He would not elaborate beyond that. I look forward with great anticipation to what that concept could be.

Burt Rutan said that in phasing out of Scaled Composites that he was not the designer of either SpaceShipTwo or WhiteKnightTwo. He said the Jim Tighe designed SpaceShipTwo and Bob Morgan designed WhiteKnightTwo. Looking at the two vehicles, though, you can see the legacy of Burt Rutan even if other people developed the designs. With a new generation of designers capable of continuing the innovations, his legacy may still only be in its infancy.


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