Burt Rutan is one of the most prolific aerospace engineers in all of human history. He is most famous for his design of the Voyager aircraft, the first plane to fly around the world without refueling, and for his of the sub-orbital plane SpaceShipOne. During his career, he designed 46 different aircraft and made significant contributions to the aerospace industry.
The Voyager [Image Source: Thomas Harrop/NASA]
Burt Rutan’s Life and Career
Born in 1943, by the time he was 8 he was already designing model airplanes. By the age of 15, he made his first solo flight in an airplane. At the age of 22, he achieved a degree in aerospace engineering and his incredible career began.
Rutan’s first stint in the aerospace world was as a test project engineer for the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s and early 1970s. During his time he designed many aircraft and was most famously known for designing the LTV XC-142. You might recognize this rather peculiar craft as a prop plan that could rotate its wings and function as a helicopter for vertical takeoff operations.
Ling-Temco-Vought XC-142A [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]
After honing his significant skills with the Air Force, he left to found his very own aerospace design company called the Rutan Aircraft Factory. One of his most famous contributions to the industry was the canard wing configuration. This is a wing concept that places 2 smaller wings in front of the main wings of an aircraft. Surprisingly, the original Wright Flyer from 1903 used a canard-like configuration to control the plane, but such a configuration was rarely ever used again until Burt Rutan somewhat pioneered its use.
Utilizing canard wing configurations became one of Rutan’s signatures throughout many of his designs. Part of the reason that it was not used much prior is because the design requires extensive aerodynamic knowledge and study to perfect it on any particular aircraft.
The White Knight and SpaceShipOne [Image Source: D Ramey Logan via Wikimedia Commons]
In the early 1980s, Burt Rutan founded a company called Scaled Composites, which still exists to this day. It is currently one of the best aircraft prototyping facilities in the world, sitting in the Mojave Desert in California.
During his time at Scaled Composites from 1982 to 2011, Rutan focused much of his energy on developing scalable sub-orbital craft with the overall goal of making it available to the public. It was this venture that ultimately resulted in one of his most famous craft, SpaceShipOne. Prior to the successful flight of this craft, only 2 other government craft ever reached past the 100 mile limit of the Earth’s atmosphere. The video below digs deeper into this accomplishment.
In an interview with Big Think, Rutan articulated his reasoning behind the development of sub-orbital craft in the following:
“I’m taking this step because I think achieving something that has never existed in manned spaceflight – and that is high volume and public access – I think it is important to do that and to do it as soon as possible.”
After retiring in 2011, Burt Rutan now only speaks and lectures at various venues across the world. Many of his famous aircraft hang in museums across the world, and his contribution to the aerospace engineering realm has been immortalized through his induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.