The Designer: Burt Rutan

The Designer: Burt Rutan
Burt Rutan is a man of vision. The no-nonsense engineer with the trademark muttonchops has been on the leading edge of some of history’s greatest leaps forward in aviation design, and remains the most prolific, successful and daring designer of his time.

No other company, public or private, has created such farsighted aircraft. Working out in the high desert of the Mojave, Rutan has designed aircraft that have burst records for speed, distance and fuel economy. One of the most famous is Voyager, which, piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, made the first nonstop, un-refueled flight around the world in 1986.

Recently, the ingenious engineer redefined space travel as we know it. Using no government money or labs, Rutan partnered with Microsoft founder Paul Allen to create SpaceShipOne, a suborbital rocket plane, as well as its mother ship, the White Knight. In 2004, the spacecraft completed two space flights within two weeks to win the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million competition driving the design of privately built spacecraft.

Born in Portland, Ore., and raised in Dinuba, Calif., Elbert L. “Burt” Rutan’s interests emerged early as he designed and built model airplanes through childhood. The youngest of three children, he and his older brother Dick developed a fascination with aircraft that continues to this day.

By 16, Rutan had already soloed. At 22, he graduated third in his class from California Polytechnic University with his degree in aeronautical engineering. He cut his teeth working on fighters and transports at Edwards Air Force Base and later became director of the Bede Test Center in Newton, Kansas.


Striking out on his own in 1974 with the Rutan Aircraft Factory, he designed and developed prototypes for homebuilt aircraft. With bold ideas hinged on lightweight materials, Rutan’s sophisticated designs rocked the general aviation industry.

In 1982, the engineer founded Scaled Composites, a private ‘skunk works’ where he could freely capitalize on his ideas and build them to his own specifications. It was the home of his greatest triumphs where he oversaw the developed of the VisionAire Vantage business jet, the Pond Racer, SpaceShipOne and Richard Branson’s latest, the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, which in March completed the first solo nonstop, non-refueled flight around the world.

Rutan is the pioneer for the use of composite materials in private aircraft and has recently become a viceral advocate for a very different idea of space travel. No matter what the challenge, Rutan has become the go-to guy for new ideas about aircraft.

“I’ll stick my neck out and say ‘Yeah, I can do that’,” Rutan said when SpaceShipOne was revealed. “If I can do that with this little company in Mojave, a lot of other people will say ‘Yeah, I can do that too. If ever there is even the tiniest hint that we inspired others by doing it first, that’s worth it to me.”

Burt Rutan Helps to Spread Wings

By Greg Anderson, President and CEO, Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum

Burt Rutan received the Wings Over the Rockies' prestigious "Spreading Wings" award November 12 before 800 Denver area aerospace enthusiasts.

Burt Rutan received the Wings Over the Rockies’ prestigious “Spreading Wings” award November 12 before 800 Denver area aerospace enthusiasts.

Over the long stretch of human history, flight has been an experience known only to a relative few human beings. Those of us blessed with the opportunity in just the last 100 years or so represent a miniscule percentage of human society. However, some of the greatest aspirations and benefits enjoyed in our way of life today can be traced to flight through the atmosphere and beyond.

Our responsibility to share these aspirations and benefits, particularly with young people, can be summed up in a mission to “spread wings.” Every so often an individual comes along who exemplifies that mission. Burt Rutan is such a person.

Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum had the opportunity November 12 to honor Burt Rutan for what he means, not only to our aerospace community, but to our way of life. Almost 800 attendees celebrated his growing list of aerospace achievements. They came from as far away as Indiana and Texas, just for the event. The museum honored Burt with its prestigious “Spreading Wings” award.

Most of us know Burt Rutan by another award, the Ansari X Prize, which went to Burt and his team for successfully achieving the first privately built, manned aircraft to reach space. Others know him as designer of the recent, successful “GlobalFlyer,” or its earlier around-the-world predecessor, “Voyager.” Still others know of his prowess over decades of aircraft design with new paradigms of performance standards, from single-place, experimental craft like the VariEze, to business craft such as the Starship and Adam A-500, to prototype fighters and high-altitude research vehicles. (Burt’s stirring remarks at the “Spreading Wings” Gala, and his early years getting into aviation will be reported elsewhere by Airport Journals.)

Most aerospace designers would be satisfied with any one of these stunning achievements. Talking with Burt, one gets the impression he’s just getting started. I’ve had the pleasure to admire his career over 22 years, most of them with the EAA in Oshkosh. Burt is one of the finest of our breed: He’s an aviator with an inspiring vision, more ambitious than most, but with the uncanny ability to achieve it against the odds. He believes the dynamics of good research are truly “out of the box,” bridging genuine possibilities with what some consider unattainable, or nonsense.

Burt was inspired to pursue flight as a young boy, and he today remains convinced-—and committed–about its power to motivate young people to new horizons. Together with Metro State University and Space Voyage, Wings Over the Rockies sponsored a Burt Rutan “Out of the Box” Aerospace Design Competition, and Burt joined the judges to choose finalists from 80 teams of middle school and high school students. He spoke to them and their parents and teachers about following their dream, keeping high standards and looking beyond the ordinary.

A six-foot ice sculpture of SpaceShipOne dominated the reception area. Also on display were a Burt Rutan-designed Adam M-309 and a flying machine from "Around the World in 80 Days," honoring his Voyager and GlobalFlyer achievements.

A six-foot ice sculpture of SpaceShipOne dominated the reception area. Also on display were a Burt Rutan-designed Adam M-309 and a flying machine from “Around the World in 80 Days,” honoring his Voyager and GlobalFlyer achievements.

The “Out of the Box” Competition was a great example of how aerospace can inspire young people to higher achievement in math, science and technology. Youth came from all corners of Colorado to participate. We have only to remember back to the 1960s, when the race to the moon launched the greatest interest among young Americans in these subjects that the world has ever seen. Wouldn’t it be great if we could see it happen again?

We all share a responsibility to spread wings. We can talk up the positive attributes of flight as it has influenced those of us who have been so blessed. We can fly Young Eagles. We can join aviation organizations. And we can support museums like Wings Over the Rockies.

Wings Over the Rockies is committed to renewing the promise of the aerospace frontier through world-class museum facilities, educational outreach initiatives and people like you. We’ll never know which small step might be our next giant leap.