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Tribute to Burt Rutan

Major gathering planned for AirVenture 2011

Story and photos by Patrick Panzera, EAA 555743, ppanzera@eaa.org


Mojave Airport

Paying tribute to an aviation legend responsible for many unique aircraft designs, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2011 will salute Burt Rutan with a special day of recognition. In addition to marking the 25th anniversary of Rutan’s Voyager aircraft around-the-world flight, AirVenture 2011 will include a "Tribute to Burt Rutan” Day on Thursday, July 28. EAA is working with builders, owners, and type groups to encourage a major gathering of Rutan-designed aircraft at AirVenture 2011 and will also create a special parking area for them on the flight line. But this will not be the first such gathering to honor Burt. On June 28, 2003, friends and family of Dick and Burt Rutan hosted a “surprise” birthday party for the famous brothers. Dick was about to turn 65 and Burt turned 60, so the birthdays were celebrated together. Over 100 canard aircraft were in attendance.

Just as it’s now being done by EAA, word was put out to the canard community by Burt’s wife, Tonya, with over 300 respondents promising to attend, and attend they did!

The official record for the most canards in attendance outside the Rutan hangar was broken that day, a stunned Burt Rutan reported to the guests. In 1988, 82 versions of his various designs (mostly Ezes) participated in a fly-in to Burt’s Mojave California home base. On this day, the unofficial count was up to 89 as Burt watched a spankin’ new VariEze taxi by the open hangar door. A more current count has it at 102 by the time everyone was on the ground, partaking in the barbecue lunch being served.

When the cat was let out of the bag and Burt was told of the impending “surprise,” he knew that there would be no way that the 1988 record would be broken. When Burt arrived at the airport around 10:30 am, he was like a kid in a candy store, trotting up and down the ramp to check out virtually every plane he could. He was visibly giddy when speaking with some of the pilots, and quite frankly, a bit miffed at a few of the design changes that he saw and wasn’t too happy with – those being structural or aerodynamic in nature as opposed to just being creative. He was especially surprised to see two to three VariEzes mixed through the sea of Longs, and kept joking, “Weren’t those things grounded in the ’80s?” Although I didn’t count the number of VariEzes on the ramp, I have reports that the actual number could be as high as 35.

Mojave Airport
With the outside air temps at the Mojave Airport reaching into the low 100s, people were still milling around taking it all in, as this was one impressive collection of fast glass.

Burt and Dick were scheduled to speak around 11 a.m., so thereabouts we gathered into the huge hangar adjacent to that of Scaled Composites, as Scaled’s hangar was fully occupied with SpaceShipOne and White Knight. Even through lunch Burt had his crew working away at preparing for the next step in his manned space program, putting people on board SpaceShipOne and hefting it aloft for more trials. As this point in the history of civilian space travel, SpaceShipOne had been airborne, coupled to the underside of White Knight, yet no one has been on board during any flight.

Burt’s family went all out for this event. The owners of the borrowed hangar were kind enough to roll out four to five of their F-4 Phantom projects to make room for a couple dozen highly decorated tables, on which there was a helium balloon made up as a hot air balloon and weighed down with a load of popcorn. For a donation of $5, we received a laminated color collage of various Rutan photos which we used as a placemat. Some of us were also lucky enough to receive a commemorative golf ball.

Once we were seated, there was a 10-minute or so large-screen multimedia display of the boys growing up together. I wasn’t surprised in the least to see remote-controlled (R/C) models as a big part of their childhood. It was really cool to be let in on this part of their lives. It was actually quite emotional, as visibly displayed by the boys, but looking around the room I could see that many of us were genuinely moved as well. I felt privileged and honored to be a part of this event.

Burt Rutan

Tonya introduced the dynamic duo. She mentioned that, for the first time ever, these two were speechless. If you’ve ever heard Burt or Dick speak, they’re usually not short for words. But this time, things were different. In essence, they took turns with the microphone, acknowledging one another’s accomplishments and displaying mutual respect and admiration for each another. They also acknowledged their parents, especially their mother, for instilling in them the attitude that they can do whatever they set their minds to. Dick set his goals on becoming a fighter pilot in combat, whereas Burt went on to become an aircraft designer in an era where all his peers were going into rocket science. Burt has now come full circle. Later on in life, Dick became Burt’s test pilot, just as he did when they were kids, with Burt designing and building model planes and Dick flying and crashing them. Together they conspired to build and fly a plane capable of orbiting the earth without refueling, and just as their mother had taught them they could, they did it!

Burt Rutan

During the “standup comic routine” of Burt and Dick, which started out by Burt telling Dick to move the “O-F-F button [on the microphone] to the O-N position,” Burt began to speak about his manned space program. He gave a shortened version of what he presented in France recently, at their version of Oshkosh (which he recommends that we not bother to visit as it don’t hold a candle to the real deal. Burt went on to make this same presentation at the then upcoming AirVenture.) Once Burt concluded his verbal presentation, he invited us to visit his hangar next door to take an up-close look at SpaceShipOne and the White Knight. He told us that we could look but not bother the crew working on the ships. No photography was allowed.

Burt Rutan

After the stage show, we were treated to a bit of an air show. One of the crew had built a tissue paper and balsa R/C model of SpaceShipOne, powered by an electric motor. The model had fully functioning elevons, and the tail was able to go into “full feather,” the high-drag, low-speed reentry configuration. It was very interesting to see it maneuver around at very low speeds, make very steep turns, and even roll. Once the tail was tweaked up to the feather position, if fell like a rock! I don’t know how much power it would take to make a full-scale version to fly around as an experimental aircraft, but it sure seems like it would make a pretty nice plane.

Burt Rutan
Group two lined up outside Scaled’s hangar door, awaiting their time to have a look inside.

Since the crowd was so large, we couldn’t possibly all fit in the hangar at once, so we split into two groups. The group I was a part of was allowed to eat first, while the other group went for the tour. I understand that Burt went along and introduced the planes, as well as fielded some questions.

By the time I was ready to head over to the hangar, an award was given out for the pilot who flew the furthest. I heard someone say that he flew in from New York, but he was beaten out by the couple who flew in from Virginia. It turns out that the person from New York flew in commercial, whereas the couple from Virginia flew their Long.

Even though I had already seen the White Knight and SpaceShipOne a few months earlier at their unveiling, I was still in awe when I entered the hangar to see its graceful span filling almost the entire room. SpaceShipOne was parked just aft of the mothership, undergoing preparations for its next flight. The nosecone was removed for access, and for some reason the windows were taped off. It was really a privilege to be allowed into this otherwise “not open to the public” workspace.

Burt Rutan
Larger view

After I found my way back to the lunch hangar (I was sidetracked by the multitude of awesome planes on the ramp and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get a photo from the scissor lift provided by Scaled for photo ops), I was in time to help clean up. Early on we were asked to stick around to assist, and it was my privilege to pitch in.

My wife and I made some new friends who had flown in that morning from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, via Torrance, California, and Tucson, Arizona. They needed a ride to a nearby motel, and we were glad to oblige. While we were at the motel waiting, we were approached by another fine couple, who needed a ride back to the airport so they could start their trip home to Virginia. These were the long-distance award winners, and once again we were happy to be of assistance.

All in all it was an excellent event, and I feel fortunate that I was able to attend. I’d like to thank Burt’s wife, Tonya, and all the others who helped put this together. I really look forward to the day when we’re notified that SpaceShipTwo is open for business!


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