Great American titans, good and bad, earned unusual sobriquets and interesting nicknames. Cornelius Vanderbilt was known as the “Colossus of Roads” for his massive railroad holdings; Hetty Green, the richest woman in American history who donned black dresses, was known as “the Witch of Wall Street”; Eddie Rickenbacker became the “Ace of Aces”; and Benjamin Franklin “the new Prometheus.” However, few have ever been accorded as many names as Burt Rutan. The Los Angeles Times called him an “Aerospace Legend,” the Wall Street Journal dubbed him “Space Pioneer.” He was called the “Final Frontiersman” by Popular Mechanics and the “Magician of Mojave” by Air and Space Magazine. Paul Allen described him as “larger than life” and Sir Richard Branson sees him as “one of the world’s true geniuses . . . . an Einstein of aerodynamics.”
Does Burt Rutan merit such accolades? Part of the answer could be his appearance on the cover of Time—twice—Life, Wired, Inc., Aviation Week, and other magazines. But a bigger part of the answer is at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum where four Rutan-designed airplanes and one spacecraft are on exhibit. SpaceShipOne, an air-launched suborbital manned spacecraft that was the first manned private spaceflight in history and won the Ansari X Prize, hangs between The Spirit of St. Louis and the Bell X-1 in the Milestones of Flight Gallery. A few hundred feet away is another record-shattering, Rutan-designed craft—Voyager—the first plane to circumnavigate the globe without stopping or refueling. More of his planes can be found in other air museums across the nation.
Among more than seventy medals and awards he has received so far, including the Presidential Citizen’s Medal, are two Collier trophies and two Lindbergh medals; he’s the only man in aviation history to be so honored by multiples of both prestigious awards. And his popularity in aviation circles is unprecedented. In 1998, owners of more than 120 Rutan-designed airplanes flew into Mojave Airport, in California’s arid desert, to celebrate his fifty-fifth birthday. When he appears at the annual Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the largest airshow—and convention—in the world, attended each year by half a million people, his fans swarm around him as if he were a rock star or famous movie actor.
His name may not yet be as well known to the general public as the Wright brothers or Charles Lindbergh, but one day it will be, perhaps in the next year or two, when Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic begins taking paying passengers into suborbital space flights on the Rutan-inspired VSS Enterprise.
A tall, angular man with piercing pale-blue eyes, graying hair, still sporting his legendary mutton chop sideburns that trace back to Elvis Presley days, Burt Rutan has a confident mien that speaks volumes about his achievements. More so, he retains a warmth and charm that lead all who meet him to see a very humane and easy-going man who is as comfortable with Paul Allen and Sir Richard Branson as with the men in the shop. He cares as much about people as he does about his innovative and cutting-edge work. Having developed forty-five unique airplanes in forty-three years, many serving as proof-of-concepts, he established an unprecedented record: not a single crash or fatality in all the test flights. What makes this even more remarkable is that in many cases Burt had built only one prototype, while in the aviation business, most companies build two or three prototypes, sometimes more, in anticipation of testing failures.
But if anyone tries to give Burt credit for being the designer of all the craft he has been associated with, they are going to get an earful from a man who wants to give credit where credit is due. He designed many of the planes, not all of them, though he was intimately involved in their development. “I don’t want to wait until I die for these guys to get credit,” he told me. It’s pretty obvious that placing Burt’s name on any airplane design gets attention and makes a project more marketable. But when I mentioned that he designed Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo he forcefully reminded me that Jim Tighe should get credit for its design. This is not false humility; it accurately portrays a man who achieved extraordinary success and can assess his achievements dispassionately. That is not to say he doesn’t have an ego; he does. He just doesn’t paint himself to be any larger than he really is.
Childhood and Early Years
Elbert Leander Rutan was born June 16, 1943, on a farm outside Estacada, southeast of Portland, Oregon, on the edge of the Mt. Hood National Forest. His father, George Albert Rutan, known affectionately in family circles as “Pop,” farmed a small tract of land owned by his maternal grandfather, and made improvements to the rustic nineteenth century two-story home with no plumbing where the family, including Burt’s mother Irene, older brother Richard and sister Nellie lived. Burt’s earliest memories are riding on a tractor on the farm or hearing dynamite explosions set off by his grandfather to clear the land.......
Voyager was difficult to fly and without a full load of fuel susceptible to turbulence in conditions where other planes would fly smoothly. In turbulence the wings would flop up and down like wings of a bird, but unlike a bird’s body, which remains stable and inert, the main fuselage of Voyager would oscillate up and down, whipped by the long and slender wings. This tendency made it extremely uncomfortable for the pilots. Chase and other planes flying near Voyager would suddenly peal away when the wings began to arc. Dick asked Burt how far the wings could bend before snapping off. According to Dick, “Burt told me they would bend upwards over thirty feet before breaking.” Burt, however, said, “ I actually told him there would be bending relief when the tips touch each other, but that did not seem to sink in.” Voyager was a slow craft, designed for endurance and safety, not comfort or speed, causing Dick to complain about the possibility of “bird strikes to the trailing edge” of the wings.
Voyager made its first flight on June
22, 1984. “The first flight was made at very light weight and in smooth
air, with no turbulence,” Burt said. “Dick was delighted with the
flying qualities and judged the airplane as having ‘good, mission
capable’ handling. However, as the test program proceeded we learned two
new things that were both bad; at light weights, even in light
turbulence, the wings would move up and down at large deflections—six to
ten feet in light turbulence and a frightful fifteen to eighteen feet
in moderate turbulence. The wing flapping got considerably less as fuel
was added, especially if the fuel was added to the tip or outboard parts
of the wing. But the bigger problem occurred at the very heavy weights;
the weights Voyager would sustain for the first two days of its world flight. At those heavy weights Voyager would
oscillate in pitch (most noticeable by wing flapping) even without
turbulence. And worse yet, if the flapping was not countered by
continuous pilot inputs it would get worse and would probably break the
wing within five or six cycles. It could be dampened automatically by
the autopilot but if the autopilot failed during the first two days the
pilot would have a difficult job of flying it back to any remote