Sunday morning got off to an absurd start with my email inbox filling up with forwarded messages that a high-profile person in aviation (I'll leave it at that) had called Burt Rutan a "failure," though why anyone would utter such nonsense is beyond me. Knowing just this, a reasonable person would have to conclude that it simply wasn't true, so enough said on that count.
But still, the question was raised, and so here goes.
While Rutan's golf game gets mixed reviews, his impact as an airplane designer is the very pinnacle of success.
The only thing I can come up with is perhaps that Rutan's impact on the certificated market has been minimal compared to his huge successes elsewhere. The Starship was a commercial failure, to be sure, though its small base of owners loved it out of all proportion to its overall sales figures. At some stage of their development, Rutan had an impact on the design of a few other certified or to-be-certified airplanes, including the Eclipse, the Visonaire Vantage and others. Moreover, the impact of Rutan's thinking on the thousands of engineers who daily apply their Rutan-inspired judgment in the crafting of the next generation of airplanes is impossible to calculate.
Then again, judging Rutan by how he measured up commercially is like judging Van Gogh by his commercial success during his lifetime. Each man painted his canvasses to please an audience of one. The results in both cases were spectacular works of art in the case of Van Gogh, and spectacular works of art/technology in the case of Rutan.
In terms of achievements, all Rutan did (in no particular order) was successfully design a private spacecraft and launch system, single-handedly invigorate the homebuilt aircraft movement, popularize the use of composites in aircraft design, dream up an airplane that successfully flew non-stop and unrefueled around the world, and create a worldwide intellectual aerodynamics movement that is vibrant and active to this day. And I'm leaving a lot of good stuff out. A lot.
And he did it all because it's what he wanted to do. It was his passion. His calling. His bliss (as Joseph Campbell would say), and he followed it doggedly.
And it wasn't about the payout or the glory or the rock star lifestyle, such as it is in Mojave, California. It was simply about those airplanes, each one a new destination, the embodiment of an idea that just wouldn't go away until Rutan had made it real and seen what it all meant. Then it was on to a new one.
EAA's Rod Hightower sent me an email underscoring the organization's view of one its brightest stars: "EAA, and all our staff, have the highest regard for the legendary Burt Rutan and his incredible career. His many contributions and achievements – from being named one of Time Magazine's “Most influential people in the world” to his being awarded the Lindbergh Medal, and dozens of other aviation and business honors – show that Burt Rutan is a man of achievement who embodies the American spirit and all the good it reflects." Nicely said, Rod.
To read all about Rutan's achievements, check out our cover story, What Rutan Did, from our August issue, written by Peter Garrison, an aerodynamicist and airplane designer who has been following Rutan's career for longer than Peter would like to admit.
In it he chronicles the dozens of reasons why Burt Rutan is the very definition of aviation success in anyone's book. Take a look if you haven't already seen it, or take a second look if you have.
The evidence is overwhelming. Case closed. End of conversation.