Mojave, Calif. — A sleek, futuristic aircraft sits on a hangar apron. Its backdrop: a strip of desert and an old runway discolored by thousands of takeoffs and landings. In the brilliant desert sunlight, a small crowd of television cameramen, journalists, and onlookers mills around the unusual-looking flying machine, christened Voyager.
They have come from around the country to witness the first official flight of this novel aircraft.
Voyager is a different breed of airplane. It is designed to fly around the world without stopping or refueling - double the distance of the current long-distance record.
Voyager is the latest trailblazing creation of Burt Rutan, who has been called the Leonardo da Vinci of modern aviation and whose single-handed achievements, experts agree, are altering the shape of the aircraft of tomorrow.
''The term 'Renaissance man' applies in his case,'' says Bruce Holmes of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Langley Research Center. In a period of extreme specialization, Mr. Rutan has made major contributions in two distinct disciplines.
In aircraft design, his efforts have proved the value of the ''canard,'' a configuration with the large wings in the back and the small wings in front. Properly designed, this arrangement greatly reduces the problem of stall-spinning, a major danger in small planes of conventional design.
Of equal or greater importance, Holmes says, has been Rutan's pioneering work in the use of composite materials, primarily foam and fiber glass. These materials allow an airframe to be built as an integral unit rather than an assembly of parts, as significant an advance as the replacement of wood and fabric with metal in the 1930s, says NASA's Mr. Holmes.
As a result, airframes like that of the Voyager can be made far smoother than possible with conventional techniques, using hundreds of joints and thousands of rivets. This greatly reduces skin friction and substantially improves fuel efficiency. Voyager, an extreme example, sips less than four gallons of fuel an hour.
According to his father, ''Dr. George,'' Burt first exhibited his genius when he was 11 years old. After quietly watching his older brother, Dick, put together model aircraft kits for several years, one day he announced that he, too, wanted to build an airplane.
''I told (my wife) Irene to take him to the store and get him one of the simplest kits, because I didn't want him to get discouraged,'' the retired, small-town dentist recalls. When Mrs. Rutan made this offer, however, the boy turned it down. He didn't want a kit, he insisted. So his parents got him the materials he needed, and the young boy designed and built a model of a Boeing 707 from scratch. ''He never used a kit,'' his father says proudly.
The Rutan children's interest in flying was strengthened when their father took flying lessons and bought a small plane. ''When I became a weekend pilot, I never dreamed we would turn into such an aviation family,'' the senior Rutan exclaims.
Not long after building that first 707 model, young Burt was winning awards for his remote-control model airplane designs. He learned to fly at age 16, soloing after only 5.5 hours of instruction. After graduating from California Polytechnic Institute in 1965, Rutan landed a job at Edwards Air Force Base as a stability and control expert. During his seven years at Edwards, he conducted 15 flight-test programs on a wide variety of aircraft.
In what proved to be a major turning point in his career, Rutan left the security of Edwards to work with James Bede, developer of a ground-breaking, but unprofitable, kit airplane. Two years later, he went into business for himself, setting up a small plant - the Rutan Aircraft Factory (RAF) - here in Mojave, which was fast developing into a haven for aircraft enthusiasts.
His first aircraft design was a small, delta-winged, home-built canard that looked as if it were designed by a Hollywood artist: an impression quickly belied by its performance, in particular its resistance to stalling. While its sleek and unorthodox looks made this design popular, it was extremely difficult to build. Only 15 or 16 were completed.
It was to make his complicated designs easier to build that led Rutan to composite materials, namely moldless foam and fiber-glass construction methods. These were incorporated in his next design, which was completed in 1976, the VariEze - a small, single-seat plane with a 22-foot wingspan that can reach speeds of 170 miles an hour and is powered by a Volkswagen engine. So far, RAF has sold 4,200 sets of plans and estimates that about 450 are flying.
Its slightly larger successor, the LongEze, has achieved similar success since its completion in 1980. About 4,000 plans have been sold and 150 planes built. Last summer, the company added plans for a tandem-wing, self-launching glider called Solitaire.
''An interesting thing happened to sport flying in the 1970s,'' NASA's Holmes observes. ''It got very expensive. Until three or four years ago it looked as if pleasure flying was going down the tubes. Then the ultralight movement surfaced. And now the construction techniques developed by Rutan make it possible to produce aircraft at prices nearly competitive with automobiles.''
Rutan's home-builts cost between $10,000 to $20,000 to complete, along with as much as 10,000 hours of effort.
More recently, the aircraft innovator has put these construction techniques to a different use. He started a second company, called Scaled Composites Inc. (SCI), to build scale models of designs for other companies. Despite the sophistication of wind-tunnel testing and computer modeling, large-scale models can provide more accurate information about the flying characteristics of new designs at a competitive price.
Since its establishment, SCI has built a 35-foot model of a jet with a rigid, pivoting wing for NASA and a 22-foot model of a next-generation military trainer for Fairchild Industries.
Its most recent project is a collaboration with Beech Aircraft on a futuristic business aircraft, called Starship 1.
In recent years Rutan has had several opportunities to sell out to big aircraft companies for a small fortune but hasn't seemed even tempted.
''I simply couldn't work in that environment, although I do consulting with companies like Beech and Boeing,'' he explains.
''Burt is not motivated by money. The fun in it for him is pushing the frontiers, the boundaries (of aircraft design). He's able to do just enough with dollars to support his work,'' Dr. Holmes observes.
Since his notoriety, the designer has gained a reputation for being standoffish. But this comes from his obsession for his work and an unwillingness to be sidetracked, say his supporters. In Mojave, he has surrounded himself with a few dozen employees equally as obsessed with airplanes.
''There aren't any work hours here. You work all the time. But it's interesting because you're always learning something new,'' explains Bob Williams, who has worked at SCI for a year and a half.
Voyager is a unique project for Rutan: It is an effort with family and friends. Several years ago, his brother Dick, now retired from the Air Force, and a friend, Jeana Yeager, were looking for something significant to do. As avid pilots, their thoughts naturally turned to the record books.
Flying around the world without refueling was one of the few major feats that remain to be achieved.
''Originally, we were thinking about an aerobatics plane, but Burt got excited about designing (one) to fly around the world,'' explains Miss Yeager. Once Burt studied the problem and decided it could be done, she and Dick founded the Voyager Corporation for the sole purpose of building the aircraft.
When they got the idea in 1981, the three looked for a corporate sponsor. But they couldn't find an American company that was interested.
A Japanese company came forward, but the three declined the offer ''because we didn't want to see Voyager hanging in the Smithsonian with a foreign banner on its side,'' Burt says.
As a result, the $200,000 development project has been a shoestring effort. A number of companies have donated the necessary parts and materials. And a number of volunteers, many from Rutan's two companies, have invested more than 22,000 hours of effort in its construction.
Minus fuel, Voyager weighs about 1,858 pounds. But for all its fragility, it will be taking off with 9,000 pounds of fuel for its around-the-world adventure. It has a wingspan equivalent to a Boeing 727 jetliner - 111 feet. Its top speed is about 150 knots.
Although a good deal more money will be needed to equip the plane for the 12 -day, 25,000-mile, world-circling flight, ''we'd kind of like to keep it a people's effort,'' says the soft-spoken Yeager.