On April 3 there was a short e-mail from Dick Rutan to “All.” It said:
Just a note ... had a going away lunch at the Voyager Cafe Mojave with Burt and Tonya; after lunch they got in the car and are driving to the new home in Idaho as I write. So they are gone lock stock and barrel from Mojave.
Gone! I found this message unexpectedly moving. Mojave without Burt Rutan! His presence had permeated the place for the past 36 years. His driving away — it was a homely detail that he and his wife left in a mere car, not a fiery chariot or even an asymmetrical twin-engine airplane — was like the soul leaving a body, though he had merely gone to Idaho, not to Heaven.
When I first got to know him in 1974, he and his second wife, Carolyn, were installing the Rutan Aircraft Factory — “Proud Birds For Your Pleasure,” their business card said — in a vacant barrack at the desolate and windswept Mojave airport. He was 31. His professional career so far had consisted of seven years as a flight test engineer at Edwards Air Force Base, followed by two at Bede Aircraft in Newton, Kansas, where he had succeeded in rescuing the BD-5 from instability if not from insolvency. He had designed, built and sold plans for an unusual-looking airplane, the VariViggen, whose stall-proof canard aerodynamics he had investigated using a large radio-controlled model mounted on a gimbal atop a moving car.
In his Mojave shop, Rutan had a fuselage shell for a BD-5, a metal canard and a plan to combine them into an airplane with BD-5 performance, but with a reliable engine and with two seats rather than one. Soon he discarded the metal components, switched to composites and dreamed up a name for the as yet unbuilt airplane: VariEze.
The original VariEze was a minimalist design with a Volkswagen engine and no electrical system. Canard elevons attached directly to the side-stick by a pair of short rods controlled both pitch and roll — the latter rather marginally, as it turned out. The first flight was scary. I watched it beside the runway with Carolyn, worrying, ever the wordsmith, about what I would say to her if Burt got killed; but the airplane worked. Rutan quickly learned to use the outward-only rudders to help with banking — swept-wing airplanes lend themselves to steering with the rudder — but other pilots who flew the VariEze prototype complained about the lack of roll authority in the stick, and at last he reluctantly added midspan ailerons to the wing.
The VariEze prototype was a sensation at Oshkosh in 1975, and Rutan responded with a version for homebuilders. A Continental engine took the place of the VW. The arresting appearance — particularly the slender, highly swept wing — remained, as did the high speed, the long range and the characteristic inability to stall. The so-called “moldless composite” construction technique was novel, as was the presentation of the plans: a large-format, spiral-bound book of hundreds of pages mingling typed text, cartoons, drawings, photographs and hand-printed commentary.
Rutan’s creative energy was inexhaustible, and the next five years brought a series of new prototypes. All were canard or tandem-wing designs, but they had little else in common. They included the Quickie, a tiny, super-simple single-seater designed around an inexpensive 18 hp industrial engine; the Grizzly, an ungainly looking three-surface bush plane whose main purpose in life was to investigate the use of high-lift flaps with tandem wings; the Solitaire, a self-launching sailplane with a retractable engine between the cockpit and the canard; the Long-EZ, a completely redesigned, larger variation upon the VariEze; and the twin-engine Defiant.