Rutan, Elbert “Burt”
InventorEnshrined 1995 1943-Present
Before Burt Rutan made a name for himself as one of the world’s top aircraft designers, he cut his teeth as a civilian flight test project engineer for the U.S. Air Force. In this capacity, he would often serve as an in-flight monitor during various aircraft test runs. One particularly demanding test sickened Rutan and sent him scrambling for a plastic bag to hold his recently eaten meal. When Rutan finished with the bag, he reluctantly tucked it inside his G-suit and tried his best to endure the rest of the flight. Before long, the bag had split open and its contents had leaked throughout the plane’s cockpit. Always one to look on the bright side of things, Rutan later said, “Well, at least I didn’t have to hold the bag anymore.”
- In 1974, he started his own company, the Rutan Aircraft Factory, developing innovative aircraft designs including the popular VariEze and Long-EZ for aviators interested in building their own light aircraft.
- Designed, built and tested 17 manned prototype research aircraft and several unmanned aerospace projects for both commercial and government clients.
- Scaled Composites, Inc., which Burt founded in 1982, designed and produced the 108 foot wing sail for the 1988 America’s Cup Challenge Race.
- His most celebrated accomplishment is the Voyager, the first airplane to fly around the world nonstop without refueling, covering 24,986 miles in 216 hours in December 1986.
- Received the Collier Trophy in 1987.
Elbert L. “Burt” Rutan was born on June 17th, 1943, in Portland, Oregon, and grew up in the suburb of Dinuba, California. A fascination with airplanes during his teenage years prompted him to attend the California State Polytechnic University, where he successfully pursued a degree in aeronautical engineering, graduating third in his class. He further enhanced his education by attending the Space Technology Institute at the California Institute of Technology, and taking courses in marketing and personnel management at Golden Gate College.
Upon graduation in 1965, Rutan found employment as a civilian flight test project engineer with the United States Air Force at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and worked on nine different Air Force research projects. He resigned that position in 1972 to become the Director of Development at the Bede Test Center in Newton, Kansas. Projects there included the BD-5, the BD-6 and the BD-J5 or “pocket rocket” jet, which has since been featured in movies and numerous air shows worldwide.
In 1974, Burt Rutan’s creative imagination and entrepreneurial interests inspired him to start the Rutan Aircraft Factory. RAF developed and marketed innovative “canard” airplane designs for aviators interested in building their own light craft at home. He continued to sell those plans until June 1985. Over 2000 of these have flown world wide, including the popular VariEze and Long-EZ. The company also distributed technical and educational publications. At the Aircraft Factory, Rutan continued researching lightweight composites and other unconventional materials for use in the manufacture of aircraft. During this time Rutan developed such notable and ground-breaking planes as the VariViggen, the VariEze, the Quickie, the Solitaire, the AD-1, the Amsoil Racer, the Defiant, the Long-EZ, and the world-renowned Voyager.
After several years of successful experimentation, Burt Rutan opened Scaled Composites, Inc., in 1982. Beech Aircraft Corporation bought SCI in 1985, and eventually became a subsidiary of the Wyman-Gordon Corporation in 1987, retaining Rutan as President and CEO. The Rutan Aircraft Factory discontinued the sale of plans for home-built airplanes, but still supports its previous customers. Located in Mojave, California, Scaled Composites is an aerospace company aimed at the design, production, and testing of prototype research aircraft and spacecraft for both commercial and government clients. Notable prototype airplanes include: Starship, an innovative business aircraft concept developed for Beech Corporation; the DARPA ATTT transport Catbird, a high efficiency single-propeller plane that seats five; the Triumph, a business jet that seats six to eight passengers and exhibits remarkable fuel efficiency; the Pond Racer, a small, lightweight, twin-propeller aircraft designed to set speed records and compete in air races; the ARES, an inexpensive attack jet fighter with high maneuverability designed for close-support battlefield missions; Predator, an agricultural aircraft; the Raptor high altitude research vehicle; and the DC-X single stage space vehicle prototype. Scaled Composites also designed and produced the 108-foot wing sail for the 1988 for the America’s Cup Challenge Race.
Perhaps Burt Rutan’s most celebrated and well-known achievement has been the design and development of the all-composite Voyager, the first airplane to fly around the world nonstop without refueling, a true aviation milestone that doubled the previous distance record. Developed in 1982 to 1984 at the Rutan Aircraft Factory, the Voyager took two years and over twenty thousand man hours to construct. The world flight began on December 14th, 1986 and ended on December 23rd, 1986, covering 24,986 miles in 216 hours. This world flight milestone was also significant because it demonstrated the feasibility and versatility of all-graphite, lightweight aircraft. After the Voyager’s return, the flight was recognized by the National Aeronautical Association, which acknowledged the accomplishment as a United States record and the FAI as a world record. On December 29th, 1986, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan presented the Presidential Citizens Medal to Burt Rutan as well as to the Voyager’s two pilots, Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan. The Voyager now hangs in the entrance to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Burt Rutan is the recipient of numerous other awards, including the FAI Gold Medal, the 1987 Collier Trophy and the Society of Experimental Test Pilots’ Doolittle Trophy for his work on the Voyager. He was named Design News Engineer of the Year in 1988, and awarded the Grand Medal of the Aero Club of France, Medal of the City of Paris, British Gold Medal for Aeronautics from the Royal Aeronautical Society and the 1993 Lloyd P. Nolan Achievement in Aviation Award as well as the Leroy Randle Grumman Medal for outstanding scientific achievement in 1989. He received the Structural Dynamics and Materials Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1992. He has also earned honorary doctorates at Daniel Webster College, California Polytechnic University, Lewis University, and Delft University of Technology.
Burt Rutan began flying in 1959, and has logged over 3000 hours pilot time. His extensive pilot experience covers a wide variety of planes. He has flown all his 26 manned aircraft designs except the Raptor and the Voyager. Rutan participates in many aviation professional organizations, such as the Experimental Aircraft Association, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Society of Flight Test Engineers, the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and the National Academy of Engineering. Mr. Rutan has presented over 200 lectures on aircraft design, aircraft operations, research business management, personnel motivation and government acquisition reform.
Burt Rutan values creativity and ingenuity in the design of airplanes. His designs certainly depart from the norm, but they have proved to be ground-breaking and very successful. Efficiency, low-cost manufacturing and conservation of energy have heavily influenced the development of Rutan’s revolutionary aircraft.
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