Aviation legend and convention-buster Burt Rutan leads the charge among civilians out to claim the point position on manned spaceflight. Will such barnstormers of space supplant NASA?
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Patch says he later heard Rutan give a talk about his VariEze prototype, and found elements of the aerodynamic design extremely sophisticated. Having a doctorate in engineering physics, Patch says he had a pretty good idea that Rutan knew what he was talking about. He bought a set of plans the week they came out.Skip to next paragraph
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"Well before I finished my plane, VariEzes were setting records for range and efficiency," says Patch. "It flew circles around the increasingly overpriced and old-fashioned 'factory built' planes."
Another VariEze owner, Rich Steck of Roswell, Ga., remembers attending an open house that Rutan regularly held for home-built enthusiasts at the Mojave Airport. After patiently answering their questions, Rutan rolled out his VariEze prototype. Rutan fired up the Volkwagen-engine conversion, recalls Mr. Steck.
"It quit just as he lifted his long left leg into the cockpit," Steck writes in an e-mail. "He glanced at the instrument panel, grinned, and said: 'Runs longer with the fuel switch on.' "
To visiting pilots, the episode made Rutan seem fallible, and human, Steck recalls. "Made it seem possible we could build what he had designed."
Rutan followed the success of his VariEze design with a series of other remarkable aircraft, including the Defiant and Long-EZ. By the early 1980s, however, he decided to transition out of the home-built aircraft market, mostly because of mounting pressures arising from his exposure to liability.
"I always felt that [I should take] very good care of those that I did sell plans to, and help them ethically and safely build and fly their airplanes," Rutan said in an online interview about five years ago with Air & Space magazine. "The guys that I was at risk from - and still am - are people that buy an airplane someone else has built, and the relatives of whoever he may take for a ride."
In 1982, when Rutan founded Scaled Composites as a separate business, it was chiefly to make proprietary designs and composite scale models of prototype aircraft designs for various customers. For the next 20 years or so, he became involved in a number of projects, including his biggest failure - developing an aircraft for Beech Aircraft in 1985 called the Starship. The project was intended to replace the Beechcraft King Air, but commercial production proved to be too complicated and costly for the Raytheon subsidiary.
By the following year, Rutan was overseeing test flights of the Voyager, with his brother Dick and copilot Jeana Yeager at the controls. While Burt Rutan oversaw the design and construction, his brother and Yeager oversaw fundraising for the $2 million mission, with much of that donated by fellow aviators.
"It was a very informal thing, very much like a private 'skunk works,' if you will," said Jack Norris, who served as technical director in mission control for the Voyager flight. "He can do a couple of calculations and wing everything in between because he started out as a kid designing and building model airplanes."
Yet Mr. Norris, who spent his career in the aerospace industry, says he also was struck by how quickly Burt Rutan could absorb information. During a Voyager test flight off the California coast, Norris realized nobody had prepared a press release that included all the key information about the flight. So he wrote a draft and showed it to Rutan after he returned from an out-of-town trip.
"I never saw anybody in any circumstance read a dense piece of paper, thoroughly digest it, and come back with the exact answer anywhere near that quick," Norris says. "In about 30 seconds he had read the whole thing, digested it, and said, essentially, these 11 things are right, these seven things are wrong, and here's what you want to say. Boom. Boom. Boom."