The Designing Life

This year’s National Air and Space Museum lifetime achievement award winner, Burt Rutan, talks about music, golf and his favorite chair.

Jim Sugar

The 2012 National Air and Space Museum Trophy in the category of lifetime achievement was awarded to prolific air- and spacecraft designer Burt Rutan. The Museum currently has five of Rutan’s historic designs, including SpaceShipOne (the first private manned spacecraft), Voyager (the first aircraft to fly around the world without refueling), and a VariEze, a composite homebuilt that was later modified into the Long-EZ (two of which were flown around the world in 1997).

On the occasion of his receiving the trophy, which will be presented in Washington, D.C., on March 21, Air & Space Senior Associate Editor Perry Turner asked Rutan a few questions about his work.

Air & Space: Most of your aircraft are one of a kind. Of those, which would you have most liked to have gone into production, and why?

Rutan: The Boomerang. Its advantages, over current production twins, are extreme for both performance and safety.

Did you have a personal experience that inspired you to design that airplane for safe operating after the loss of an engine? Why was that engine-loss scenario on your mind?

Self-preservation. I built it for myself—my personal airplane.

Tell me about your interest in electric power for airplanes. What inspired you to create BiPod roadable aircraft? Do you have any plans to make any other hybrids or other forms of electrically powered airplanes?

Two things inspired me to develop BiPod:

1. A new configuration, which promised more airplane-like flight performance, since all the new flying cars are really bad airplanes, which barely fly and cannot fly over the Rocky Mountains. I do not think a flying car is practical, unless it has a satisfactory level of speed, climb, takeoff distance, and range in the air.

2. I was fascinated with the concept of having multiple electric motors to drive individual propellers, which would make a truly roadable bipod "car" have short takeoff distance and excellent redundancy.
However, I think electric airplanes will not be practical until there is a three- to four-time improvement in battery energy storage per pound, with a battery pack that is affordable. When that happens, then there will be many new electric and hybrid airplanes.

How is your current floatplane project going? What stage are you at? 

It’s a good plan. It’s still in design phase. We will likely start build before the summer. 

What will you do with it? 

I’ll explore the lakes and rivers of north Idaho.

What are some of your designing rituals: Do you like to listen to music when you work? 

No music or other distractions during the creative part of design work. Music is okay while doing routine calculations, or when developing a CAD [computer-aided design] model of an existing innovative design. However, the thinking must be done in a silent room or outside in nature. 

When you do listen to music, what kind do you like? 

Interesting, I have never been asked that before! My iPod music playlist has a lot of Elvis gospel, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Harry Chapin, Jim Croce, Peter, Paul and Mary, John Prine, Leon Russell, Limeliters, Tammy Wynette, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Gordon Lightfoot, and stand-up comedy. 

What are some of your other designing rituals: Any favorite desk or chair? 

I am big on bean-bag chairs, at least the new ones that are shredded urethane foam, not the old styro beans. I spend a lot of time on a reclining chair in front of my Mac with 30-inch monitors. 

Do you follow any sports? 

I’m a golf addict. Especially the Major championships and the Ryder Cup. I have played the big courses: Pebble Beach (my dad took me there when the green fees were 15 dollars!), Cyprus Point, St. Andrew’s old, etc. I have played golf with about 20 top pro golfers, including Arnold Palmer.
I have no interest in other sports. Hey, you have no chance to play with the top pros in other sports. 

If you were head of the FAA, what would you change? 

Throw out as many regs as I could. Get back to individual responsibility, not government-restricted and -regulated flying.

How would you try to revive general aviation? 

Same answer.

What would you have become if you hadn't gone into aircraft design? 

I think an architect.

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