Burt Rutan: The Measure of His Success

 - July 29, 2011, 11:41 AM

How does one measure the success of an airplane designer?

Was John Thorp a success because he designed, among many others, the airplane (his T-16 of the mid-1950s) that spawned tens of thousands of Piper Cherokees? Was Kelly Johnson more successful as a designer because he conceived the Mach 3+ SR-71 Blackbird? Or Joe Sutter for the Boeing 747? Reginald Mitchell for the graceful, nation-saving Spitfire? Stelio Frati for the unfailingly seductive sport airplanes he brought to life over the course of some 60 years? All great designers, unquestionably.

To my mind, however, Burt Rutan has repeatedly demonstrated over the past 40 years or so that he possesses the most fertile neurons ever tasked with designing flying machines. In April this year, Rutan put Mojave in the rearview mirror and drove north to a new home in Idaho and retirement. This week he received a suitable sendoff from his many admirers at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, people who knew him decades before his more recent spaceflight endeavors brought broader fame. Few of Rutan’s designs sold in appreciable numbers, and the ones that did (odd-looking machines with a small wing in front and a big one where the tail should be) were built by enthusiasts from plans in their basements, garages and hangars. Most of his designs were one-offs, designed and built for diverse reasons. Some were built and flown seemingly for no other reason than for Rutan to answer a question aerospace had never asked (the Grizzly, for example); others answered questions that had previously proved impossible to answer, most notably Voyager, flown around the world nonstop and unrefueled by Burt’s brother, Dick, and Jeana Yeager in 1986.

To call any particular Rutan airplane “odd looking” is superfluous, since all of them have taken paths to lift, stability and endurance that were visibly far different from anything else. The Boomerang perhaps takes the trophy for oddest looking. Designed to address the inherent hazards that accompany asymmetric thrust after engine failure in a conventional piston twin, the Boomerang simply looked impossible – the conventional piston twin in carnival fun-house mirrors. Vaguely reminiscent of, but way weirder than, the bizarre WWII Blöhm und Voss Bv-141 asymmetric single, the one-off Boomerang has one wing longer than the other and staggered engine mounting positions; one main landing gear retracts forward, the other aft; the cabin is off center, occupying one of two “fuselages.” A photo of the Boomerang speaks the proverbial thousand words. Unlike the piston twin that looks correct but uses its second engine to carry the airplane to the scene of the accident, the Boomerang was tame after loss of an engine. Rutan set out to build a Beech Baron 58 with no dark side, and he succeeded aerodynamically if not commercially.

I remember touring the Scaled Composites facility in Mojave with him in the 1990s and noticing a truly massive propeller blade of absurdly high aspect ratio lying lengthways on the floor. Without missing a beat, Rutan dismissed it as belonging to a new UAV he was working on and kept strolling with a pace that suggested I had seen something I wasn’t supposed to have seen. It turned out to be one blade of a giant wind turbine for generating electricity.

On another visit a few years later, as we sat in his office he outlined his plans for building a design that would be key to something he called “space tourism.” Sure Burt, I thought.