When I once asked him about his fondness for canards, Rutan replied — I had a feeling that this was a bit of a set speech — that he had no prejudice in their favor, but merely selected whatever configuration was best suited for each new project. Nevertheless, almost all of his early designs were canards or tandem-wing airplanes; it was not for nothing that he came to be known as “canard guru Burt Rutan.” He set off a canard craze among designers; for a decade, there was a good chance that any new design or proposal would use the configuration. By the late 1980s, however, Rutan was producing more and more conventional or three-surface designs — and three-surface configurations are really not canards, the fore surface being part of the wing while the horizontal stabilizer is the principal source of both pitch control and longitudinal stability. He had also drifted away from pushers, complaining that he had never found a way to eliminate the harsh noise produced when propellers chop through the disturbed wakes of wings and fuselages.
Scaled employees grew from a handful to hundreds. Increasingly, projects were assigned to lead engineers, with Rutan supervising. Global Flyer, for example, the single-engine jet in which the late Steve Fossett, flying solo, first duplicated and then surpassed Voyager’s achievements, was designed and built with little of Rutan’s direct participation. But certain designs, entirely his own, represented the continuing evolution of his ideas about personal aircraft. One of these, Catbird, originally intended as a CAFE efficiency racer and also studied as a Bonanza replacement, was a very compact five-seat three-surface machine that achieved a 215-knot cruising speed with a turbocharged 200 hp Lycoming engine. It succeeded the Defiant as Rutan’s personal airplane until he cannibalized its engine for his next personal-airplane project, Boomerang.
Catbird was a relatively conventional airplane; the wildly asymmetrical Boomerang was not. Rutan had always left himself open to the charge that he designed weird-looking airplanes just to get attention, but never more than with Boomerang, in which nothing mirrored anything else and you would need a tape measure to locate the centerline. But Boomerang was a prodigious performer, and proved, if it still needed proving, that there was a great deal of method in Rutan’s madness.
The 1990s brought two VLJ prototypes — the Visionaire Vantage and the Williams V-Jet — and the spidery Proteus. Originally designed as a high-altitude, long-endurance telecommunications relay platform, Proteus, with a service ceiling above 60,000 feet, has been in continuous use since 1998 in a wide variety of research and systems testing roles. Configured to carry external payloads on a central pylon, Proteus was the precursor of the larger motherships used to air-launch SpaceShipOne and its commercial successor, SpaceShipTwo.