The Awesome Airplanes of Burt Rutan

A look back at the creations of a legendary aircraft designer.

By his early 30s, Burt Rutan already had years of experience as an Air Force test pilot under his belt, as well as experience designing, building and selling his own aircraft.
The all-wood, twin-fin VariViggen, tested in an improvised “car top wind tunnel” and named after a Swedish canard fighter, was Rutan’s first design for homebuilders.
His second, the sleeker, all-composite VariEze, made him a star.
The Grizzly’s three-surface plan and big Fowler flaps anticipated “SMUT,” the DARPA STOL for a secret hostage-extraction mission that never happened.
Nothing if not versatile, Rutan created the super-simple 18 hp Quickie.
This abortive Beech Cabin Twin, which anticipated the Honda Jet with its jet engines set atop the wings, was another Rutan creation.
Seen here is the Beech Starship. While varying accounts of the airplanes origin exist, rumor has it that Beech management invited Rutan to propose several configurations, and in the ensuing “beauty contest” chose the VariEze look-alike.
Nightly television coverage of Voyager’s nine-day flight at the end of 1986 made Rutan’s name familiar to people who had no special interest in aeronautics. It began to appear that there was nothing that this prodigy could not do.
Rutan’s hallmarks included variable-geometry sideburns and a construction method in which lightweight plastic foam cores gave shape and stiffness to a load-bearing skin of fiberglass (as here, in the Defiant prototype) or, later, carbon fiber.
Proteus, a versatile research aircraft continuously in demand to carry scientific and military payloads to U-2 altitudes, was the precursor of the much larger White Knight.
The first civilian manned space flights were launched from the White Knight, shown here.
Rutan, left, and British airline magnate Richard Branson pose before the prototype of Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceplane, seats in which hundreds of would-be astronauts have booked at $200,000 apiece.


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