Scaled Composites

A futuristic-appearing craft took to the air in 1983, looking unlike anything else in the skies. It was a bold innovation in aviation design, merging a state-of-the-art lightweight composite airframe with twin rear pusher-propellers, a swept-forward wing, and an innovative variable-sweep forward horizontal stabilizer (called a foreplane or canard) that changed configuration to compensate for the aerodynamic changes during flight. The legendary designer of this “aircraft of the future,” known as the Beech Model 2000 Starship, was the unconventional Elbert L. "Burt" Rutan. 

Rutan's most expensive project, the Beech Starship was just one in a series of experimental and unique aircraft designs that are his trademark. Burt Rutan's design résumé is loaded with such revolutionary aircraft as the VariViggen, VariEze, Quickie, Solitaire, AD-1, Amsoil Racer, Defiant, Long-EZ, Grizzly, Solitaire, Catbird and, most notably, the renowned Voyager, the first aircraft to fly non-stop around the world without refuelling in 1986.  

Born on June 17, 1943, in Portland, Oregon, Elbert L. "Burt" Rutan grew up near Fresno, in the suburb of Dinuba, California, where as a youngster he designed and built award-winning model aircraft. By the age of 16, Rutan had learned to fly, and his enthusiasm for aviation continued at California Polytechnic State University, where he earned a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1965, graduating third in his class.  

Following his graduation, Rutan started his professional career as a civilian flight test project engineer at Edwards AFB, California, working on nine Air Force research projects over the next seven years. In 1972, he joined Bede Aircraft as its director of development at the Bede Test Centre in Newton, Kansas, noted for fibreglass V-tail kit airplanes, such as the BD-5, and the BD-5J “pocket rocket” mini-jet aircraft, made famous in a 1983 James Bond movie.  

Rutan's creative vision led to the formation of his own Rutan Aircraft Factory in 1974 to design and market innovative canard designs for home-built light aircraft such as the VariEze and the Long-EZ. (A canard is a horizontal stabilizer mounted on the fuselage in front of the wings; the word means “duck” in French.) Burt's brother, Dick Rutan, established numerous world speed and distance records in the Long-EZ, earning the prestigious Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) Louis Bleriot Medal of the World Air Sports Federation for these achievements. Located at the Mojave (California) Airport, the Rutan Aircraft Factory also manufactured a number of light aircraft models, incorporating composites and unusual materials into its imaginative designs.  

The Rutan Aircraft Factory would soon leave its mark on aviation history with its most ambitious aircraft project, the Voyager. Designed for maximum fuel efficiency, the twin-engine Voyager was completely constructed from composite materials, including an airframe weighing only 939 pounds (426 kilograms) and a main wing so bendable that the tip flexed three to five feet (0.9 to 1.5 meters) while in flight. Construction began in earnest in the summer of 1982. 

Often described as a “flying fuel tank,” the Voyager was outfitted with 17 fuel tanks that carried 7,011 pounds (3,180 kilograms) of fuel—more than 72 percent of its gross weight—at takeoff. During flight, the pilots would shift fuel from tank to tank to maintain the aircraft's balance. Following a construction phase lasting almost two years and expenditure of more than 22,000 hours of labour, the Voyager made its first test flight on June 22, 1984. 

Weighed down by its enormous load of fuel, the Voyager laboriously took to the skies for its round-the-world attempt on December 14, 1986, with Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager at the controls. Covering 24,986 miles (40,211 kilometres) in nine days, three minutes and 44 seconds, the weather-beaten Voyager touched down on the dry lakebed at Edwards AFB, California, on December 23, 1986, having successfully circled the globe on the first non-stop, un-refuelled flight. Only 106 pounds (48 kilograms) of fuel remained in the Voyager's tanks at landing. 

The Voyager is now on permanent display in the main gallery of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., alongside such other famous aircraft as the Wright Flyer and Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. The development and historic flight of the Voyager earned Burt Rutan the FAI Gold Medal, the Collier Trophy, and the Society of Experimental Test Pilots' Doolittle Trophy. The Rutan brothers and Jeana Yeager were also presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Ronald Reagan.  

Burt Rutan expanded his successful experiments with composite materials to larger-scale projects with the formation of Scaled Composites, Inc., in 1982, for the design, fabrication, and flight testing of prototype aircraft projects for both the government and private industry. Efficiency, low-cost manufacturing techniques, and energy conservation were the primary goals. 

Rutan sold Scaled Composites to Beech Aircraft in 1985, staying on as the company's chief executive officer and creative visionary. (Scaled Composites was later acquired by the Wyman-Gordon Company in January 1989, and Burt Rutan was retained as the company's president and CEO). 

The most notable of Rutan's creations was Beech's Model 2000 Starship, a radical departure from the traditionally conservative designs of Beech Aircraft. The all-composite Starship lacked a conventional tail—using rudders on upturned fins or winglets at the end of each wing to provide directional control and stability in addition to a variable-sweep canard. Aluminium mesh embedded into the skin shielded the Starship's electronics by permitting electric current to flow through the body to a point where the charge exited the aircraft, with only minor cosmetic damage at the actual lightning strike point. 

Following a rigorous flight test program to bear out the most ambitious general aviation development project in history, Rutan's Starship received formal certification from the Federal Aviation Administration on June 14, 1988. Beech's $350-million investment, coupled with Burt Rutan's design genius, resulted in a high-performance, stall-free aircraft that accommodated eight passengers (plus two pilots), competitive in speed with small business jets. 

A list of Burt Rutan's awards and honorary degrees would fill an entire page. During his illustrious career, he has earned virtually every honour the aviation world can bestow. His innovative designs and extensive use of composite materials have rewritten the book on how aircraft should be built.

Rutan has now taken the giant step into space, having designed the first private enterprise rocketship and achieved manned space travel. Work is in progress to become the first private space tourist carrier.