Spotlight: The Wright Brothers' Latest Successors

Dick Rutan and Burt Rutan


Dick Rutan can't remember a time when he was not obsessed with flying. His younger brother Burt followed in his footsteps.

The boys' first toys were simple model airplanes, but they soon graduated to radio-controlled model aircraft, buying, says Dick, "whatever we could afford." Both started flying as soon as they were legal, at age 16. Later Dick joined the Air Force to become a pilot, and Burt went to California Polytechnic State University to study aircraft design, establishing a division of labor that still exists. Says Dick Rutan, "Burt builds them and I fly them."

Dick retired from the Air Force in 1979 as a lieutenant colonel. He moved to Mojave, California, to work as a test pilot for his brother, who had established himself as a leader in innovative aircraft design. As president of Scaled Composites, Inc., Burt Rutan designs unusual lightweight aircraft.

Burt Rutan's planes all have several things in common. They are made from light and extraordinarily strong carbon-fiber composites. They also have a canard, which resembles a full-fledged forward wing attached to the nose of the craft and effectively prevents a major cause of fatal aircraft accidents, stalling.

The Rutan brothers produce and test planes that look like they have flown out of science-fiction films. Rutan Aircraft, another company run by Burt Rutan, is the leading producer of build-it-yourself small planes that sneak under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations concerning aircraft design. Aviation Consumer magazine called Burt the "most innovative and successful light-plane designer in the country." His designs have won awards too numerous to list. Similarly, Dick Rutan has set numerous speed and distance records flying his brother's designs. A Professional Pilot magazine survey of aviation professionals voted both brothers among the eight most important contributors to aviation during 1984.

Most of the records are, frankly, not the sort that make network news. But if all things go as planned, that should change in September. According to Dick, the ultimate aviation record would be to circumnavigate the globe without refueling. The brothers are trying to meet that challenge.

Burt Rutan designed the Voyager to fly around the world in a little over 11 days. To pilot the plane, Dick will team up with Jeana Yeager, who holds her own share of records.

There are no prizes for the nonstop flight. The urge to perform the feat is the only motivating force for Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, who have spent themselves into poverty trying to break what Dick calls "the only real record left." Burt has not invested further than the design for the craft, which he admits has nothing about it that he could patent. He says that personal gain will not be tangible, but an engineer, like an artist, gets satisfaction "in achieving something that is a personal challenge, much like those who ran the first four-minute mile."

Individual contributors to the nonprofit company Voyager Aircraft have helped to fund the project, and Dick Rutan is always looking for people who would like their names in the official logbook to be dedicated to the Smithsonian. If successful, the Voyager will do more than go down in the record books. It will attract attention to an alternative design philosophy that uses lightweight composite structural components and the canard. The Voyager has twice the range of the B52 and is bigger than a Boeing 747, though it weighs only a fraction of either of the other crafts.

After seeing the Rutan designs, one has to wonder why aviation in general has not adopted the safer, more efficient designs. Both Rutans have thoughts on that subject. "The FAA stymies people's ability to live their lives and be creative," Dick says. "The industry needs to be deregulated, and antiquated regulations should be shelved. For instance, regulations require stall-spin demonstrations, though modern planes are physically incapable of spinning." Dick also says that regulations are written with aluminum aircraft in mind, encouraging manufacturers to work with the inferior material. "Composite materials will bring aviation back to the common people," he says. "They are cheaper and so much stronger, they can be built not to fail."

Burt says, "The big problem has been with lawyers and product liability laws that make it difficult for manufacturers to apply new technology." Burt explains that manufacturers of general-aviation aircraft are bound to the status quo. "If they come up with an improvement," he says, "they can be sued for not making improvements on older aircraft." This is complicated further by what he calls "an inability at the working level for FAA employees to make a decision"—so "proving that an aircraft meets regulations is drawn out, because people pass the buck and are afraid to make a decision."

Dick and Burt Rutan are expected by many who are familiar with their work to break the last of the obvious personal-flight records. The Rutan brothers must share some of the same drive and spirit that inspired the Wright brothers in making their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The analogies cannot be avoided. Perhaps the most significant change will not be technological, but the fact that this time it will be two brothers—and a woman.

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.