July 26, 2009 - Oshkosh, Wisconsin -
Visionary aircraft designer, aerospace entrepreneur and patron saint of
homebuilders, Elbert "Burt" Rutan has been a fixture at the EAA
Oshkosh Fly-In Convention for four decades. He first came to the Oshkosh
fly-in in 1971, and the next year debuted his first full-scale aircraft
design at the fly-in: the VariViggen. Since then Rutan has attended every
Oshkosh fly-in but one (in '07, for health reasons) and displayed more
than a score of his unique aircraft at the air show. In fact, the fly-in
was central to the success of his homebuilt aircraft business, the Rutan
Aircraft Factory (RAF).
Photo by Mark
2009 WhiteKnightTwo- A derivative of the WK, WhiteKnightTwo (WK2)
is the launch vehicle for SpaceShipTwo (SS2). “It’s the
prototype of the first commercial system developed to carry the
public outside the atmosphere,” Rutan says. “If you say that
succinctly, you’ve said everything that needs to be said about
it.” Designed for Virgin Galactic, the four-engine, twin
boom/cabin aircraft is the largest all-composite aircraft ever
built. Designed by Bob Morgan and Jim Tighe, it is the first
Scaled manned aircraft Rutan did not personally design.
"Back when we had the homebuilt
company, we focused everything around Oshkosh," Rutan says.
"That was a good place to show a new airplane. I had a little 10
(-foot) by 10 (-foot) booth for 12 years. We were selling (aircraft)
plans, and we would make 20 to 25 percent of our (annual) sales the week
of Oshkosh, so it was very important for us."
Born in Estacada, Oregon on June 17, 1943,
and reared in Dinuba, California, Rutan designed and built model aircraft
as a youngster, soloed at age 16 in an Aeronca Champ, and studied
aeronautical engineering at California Polytechnic University, graduating
in 1965. After working for the U.S. Air Force as a flight test project
engineer at California's Edwards Air Force Base and as director of the
Bede Test Center for Bede Aircraft in Newton, Kansas, in 1974 he launched
RAF in Mojave, California. The following year he made his name in the
homebuilt world with his VariEze, which created a sensation at the 1975
convention when it set the world distance record for closed course in its
weight class, with brother Dick piloting.
"One of my fondest memories was when
the little VariEze flew in from California and everybody was all excited
about this new era in homebuilding," Rutan recalled in remarks at
Aeroshell Square after arriving at Wittman Regional Airport with
WhiteKnight and SpaceShipOne in 2005.
Whether created to provide efficient air
transportation for a homebuilder or take paying passengers to the edge of
space, Rutan's design focus is safety first and efficiency second. The
canard many of his aircraft feature reduces the risk of stall/spin
accidents, while optimized aerodynamics have earned several of his designs
records for distance, speed and efficiency.
In 1982 Rutan founded Scaled Composites LLC
- "Scaled" to its people - in Mojave, to design prototype
aircraft for private sector and government customers. It gave him a bigger
canvas (and budgets) for his innovative ideas, but the new venture
impinged on operations at RAF.
"I was running two companies, I could
only run one," Rutan says. "I picked the one that didn't have
product liability exposure."
In 1985 RAF stopped selling plans for
Rutan's aircraft designs, but continued providing assistance to customers
who had already purchased them.
I found the builders support was a much
more difficult job than anybody would think," Rutan says. "A
school teacher finds they spend 80 percent of their time with F students.
We were spending enormous time with people who can't read plans, or make
silly mistakes. I thought I would keep RAF open three or four years"
to continue providing assistance, Rutan says. "As it turns out, we
did builder support for more than 20 years. People took that long to build
Under the Scaled banner Rutan still
occasionally developed aircraft for his own purposes and brought them to
the fly-in (the Catbird and the Boomerang), but most are designed for hire
and are displayed at AirVenture at the pleasure of whoever funded their
development. Fortunately many customers recognize the historical
importance of the aircraft and the cultural significance of AirVenture
(not to mention the PR benefits of the public viewings) and allow them to
be shown at Aeroshell Square.
The space launch vehicle WhiteKnightTwo
(WK2), which is being showcased at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2009, was funded
by the Virgin Group as part of the Tier Ib project, the first private
system designed to take paying passengers beyond the atmosphere. Virgin
Group CEO Sir Richard Branson certainly appreciates the significance of
AirVenture, and he's also known as one of the world's most PR-savvy
corporate chieftains. So attendees can thank Sir Richard for the launch
vehicle's display. WK2 is the 22nd of Rutan's aircraft he's brought to the
convention (and the first Scaled manned aircraft he did not design
himself). In a way WK2's showing brings Rutan's display portfolio full
circle. For without the fly-in, Rutan says, there would be no WK2.
"To get the kind of feedback we get
here at Oshkosh was one of the ingredients that was important for me in
making the decision that maybe I can build a spaceship," Rutan says.
"Because without that interface, I wouldn't have had that strong
feeling that this was something the masses really want to do. So my
interface with Oshkosh dating back to 1971 was real important for me in
having the courage to say, 'Listen, I can do this, and I'm going to go for
For more on WK2 and an insiders' account of
its development, see the August issue of EAA Sport Aviation,
available on the AirVenture grounds this week. Members can also access the
magazine online at www.oshkosh365.org.
For a gallery of most of the 22 aircraft
Rutan has showcased at the fly-in, along with their design highlights and
what Rutan has to say about them, click