Project Notebook: Retirement Dream

Burt Rutan's SkiGull takes shape. Will it be his last airplane?

SkiGull
The SkiGull quickly converts from landplane to seaplane to skiplane through a never-before-seen retractable landing-gear system.Courtesy Burt Rutan

When legendary airplane designer Burt Rutan announced his retirement in 2011, a collective gasp rang through the aviation industry.

Airplane enthusiasts wanted to see more of Rutan’s ingenious and sometimes whacky designs. Fortunately it wasn’t long before a sigh of relief followed the shock when details emerged of Rutan’s latest project — SkiGull.

SkiGull is the 47th aircraft designed by the award-winning engineer or produced by one of his companies. This most recent airplane was conceived as a retirement chariot of sorts to carry Rutan and his wife, Tonya, who is also a pilot, around the world.

Never one to shy away from challenges, Rutan wanted an airplane that could convert quickly to land anywhere — on water, snow and solid ground. Hence, he designed a retractable landing-gear system that can turn the SkiGull from a land-based airplane to a seaplane or to a skiplane literally within seconds. The skis take only 1.5 seconds to extend or retract, Rutan says.

Burt Rutan
Award-winning engineer Burt Rutan built SkiGull, which converts from land-based airplane to seaplane to skiplane in a matter of seconds, in his garage.Matt Leitholt

SkiGull’s main components are made of composites and titanium, materials that can withstand the corrosive nature of the ocean. The airplane has a high wing configuration, preferred in areas of rough terrain, with a propeller and Rotax 912iS engine mounted front and center. The first flight test showed a fuel burn of only 3 gph, and Rutan expects the airplane to have “ocean crossing range.” On each wing is an electric motor with a folding propeller that can provide forward, aft and rotating thrust for docking, water takeoffs and potential engine failures.

The public first learned about SkiGull early last year as word spread that a documentary, titled Looking Up, Way Up! The Burt Rutan Story and produced by a company called AntennaFILMS, was in the making. The production company is chronicling the new design's progress.

And the progress has been impressive. The landing-gear concept was tested using a model Rutan named Penguin, which consisted of the trimaran configuration and the retractable, flexible skis attached to a boat. The completed SkiGull made its first water taxi in early November 2015 and took its first flight by the end of the same month. Test pilot Glen Smith flew SkiGull for 1.8 hours and concluded that the airplane has terrific flying qualities. However, he found the stall characteristics to be unacceptable, sending Rutan back to the drawing board to make modifications. To solve the stall problem Rutan said he would add stall strips, vortilons or a leading-edge cuff.

SkiGull
SkiGull has so far been tested at Hayden Lake near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The airplane is designed to handle waves three times as big as conventional seaplanes can.Courtesy Burt Rutan

There were a few additional issues found during the early tests that will require more work. Significant airspeed errors were noted in slow flight, a problem Rutan says he hopes to solve by moving the pitot-​static probe from the nose to the wing or the wing strut outboard of the propeller wash. The flexible skis also suffered some damage in the early test phases, and new ones will have to be autoclaved, he said.

While Rutan has had help from a team of builders, he said he would quit producing airplanes once SkiGull is finished. “I built SkiGull in my garage starting 20 months ago, and it was a grueling exercise for an old guy in his 70s,” he said after the first flight. But never fear. While he says he is done with composite layups and construction, Rutan plans to 
continue his incomparable work designing aircraft.