Pilot Journal
Sunday, May 1, 2005

Burt Rutan

After drawing and building airplanes all his life, this genius’ designs are getting out of this world

burt rutanBefore pilot Brian Binnie soared and flew right into world history aboard SpaceShipOne on October 4, 2004, team leader Burt Rutan had a little advice for his old golfing buddy. Just after 6 a.m. inside a hanger at Mojave Airport in California, Burt leaned into the bug-like spacecraft’s cockpit and said, “Use the driver. Keep your head down and swing smooth.”
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Burt plans to make spacecraft for Virgin that will go to heights of more than 450,000 feet. He remarks, “Richard Branson has the courage to take the technology now and go straight to operational use where thousands of people can fly.”

The way things are going, Burt believes all this could lead to resort hotels in space one day. “If you would have told me when we started in 2001 when I laid it out for Paul that we would finish this program flying six powered flights and three of them being space flights, I would have said, ‘Naaahhh!’ The ship worked a lot better than any of us could have hoped. SpaceShipOne has some specific goals: Manned space flight can be flown at high safety levels compared to current manned space vehicles. For space tourism to occur, we must be safer than the early airliners were, and that’s where our focus has been. Thanks to Richard Branson’s plan to move this into the next step, we have a big challenge in front of us now. Remember the Voyager when it flew around the world in nine days and set a milestone? The Voyager flight set an enormous important milestone. It demonstrated courage. It demonstrated risk, but when we were all done with it, we had a milestone and nowhere to go with it. The difference with this program, thanks to Richard Branson, is that we have a milestone and a challenge in front of us. We’ve only begun.”

burt rutan
In the 1990's , pilot Mike Melvill flew Burt's then-new design, the Defiant, for a low-level pass over California's Mojave Desert.
Photo credit: Steve Werner

Burt, 61, has always had “the right stuff.” The youngest of three, he grew up in Dinuba, Calif., near Fresno. His father was a dentist who gave up golf to buy a small plane and got his children hooked on aviation. “Both of us had aviation fuel in our veins,” says Burt’s brother Dick, a 14,000-hour pilot.

Burt began making—and designing—model airplanes at an early age. “He would design a plane that would do some incredible things, and I’d look at it and say, ‘There’s no way that will work.’ Of course it did,” says Dick.

Burt was the Charles Lindbergh of model-airplane competitions. “He would come up with really innovative and creative solutions that blew everybody else away,” recalls Dick. “There were a lot of rules in model-airplane contests, and he would find some way to blow away the competition while keeping within the rules.”

About age 14, Burt designed a Harrier Jump Jet before there was a Harrier. “There was a carrier competition, where the planes take off and land on a little carrier,” explains Dick. “Two of the contests were how fast you can go and how slow you can go. He designed a carrier plane that could actually hover. They had to change the rules because of him.”


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