Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager had sunk not only their life savings but also their souls into the Voyager. As far as Burt was concerned, though, it was just another airplane, something to slap together on nights and weekends--Model 76 by his internal accounting. (The Boomerang is Model 202; the Proteus, Model 281.) Even as Rutan's cohorts slaved over the Voyager, his own focus shifted to the Starship, which was supposed to vault him into the corridors of corporate America. As he and Melvill hooked up with the triumphant Voyager in the predawn darkness, Rutan saw both an end and a beginning.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 9, 2000 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 3 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
In a photo caption in the Nov. 21 issue, two aircraft designed by Burt Rutan were identified incorrectly. The caption, on Page 17, should have described the aircraft at the top as a prototype for one of Rutan's private clients. The plane at bottom of the photo was a special military utility transport plane.
"After a while," he says, still hunched over his plate, his uneaten mashed potatoes hardened into brown peaks, "the sun started coming up, and we could make out the airplane in the light. Remember, the last time we'd seen it, the wings were drooping down because of all the fuel they were carrying. Now they were perfectly flat. It was droning along with both engines running, and the air was so smooth, so serene, so gorgeous, and we had all these lights around us--the L.A. Basin in front of us, San Diego behind. And here was this airplane, just perfectly still, just perfectly. . . . just. . . ." He takes a deep breath, then spits it out: "Just perfect."
A seven-story building at Mojave Airport houses the Roton, a spacecraft that lands like a helicopter. Elsewhere on the flight line are a World War II-era Hawker Sea Fury, a Vietnam War-era MiG-21 and an old Boeing 747 being used to test engines for the new 777. But of all the weird and wonderful sights at Mojave, none is more intriguing than the contents of Scaled Composites. Predictably, the facility is surrounded by wire mesh fencing bearing "Keep Out" and "Restricted Area" placards, and everybody who visits has to sign a nondisclosure statement to get beyond the lobby. At the moment, the company is working on more than a dozen projects, including, incidentally, the composite shell for the Roton.
Rutan works out of a disorderly corner office with dated wood paneling and permanently shuttered windows. As always, he is dressed in a denim shirt, blue jeans and sandals. "If I want to look dressed up," he says, "I'll wear a leather jacket." Even sitting down, he looks long and lanky. His most distinctive feature is a prominent set of mutton chops that--white hair aside--would have looked right at home at Graceland circa 1970. When he smiles, his face seems surprisingly boyish for a 56-year-old workaholic who suffered a mild heart attack last year. "My number one priority is having fun," he insists as he scans his perpetually full e-mail in-box. "If you're having fun, you're more likely to be productive. If you're being productive, you're more likely to be competitive. By putting the F-word up front, I've been able to attract talented people to work here even though they could make as much, if not more at, say, Lockheed or Boeing. Having fun is how I've managed to create a profitable company."
Most of Scaled Composites' revenue comes from contract work for the government and big business on aerospace design, engineering, fabrication, assembly, research and development, or any combination thereof. But the projects that truly energize Rutan are the ones he undertakes on his own, where the only person he has to please is himself. "Most customers don't want to take risks," he explains. "The Boomerang is a perfect example. There is no way I could have found a customer on the basis of the concept design." To be honest, he would have had trouble finding passengers. At first glance, the Boomerang looks like a horrible mistake, either the mutant offspring of a P-38 Lightning--the famous twin-boom World War II fighter--or a flying version of an outrigger canoe. One engine is attached to the fuselage, or main body, where the pilot and passengers sit. A second engine is mounted farther back and to the left, on a smaller boom--sort of a withered fuselage, perfect for lugging, say, skis. As a result, the airplane is deliberately asymmetrical. Orville and Wilbur Wright must be spinning like contra-rotating propellers in their graves, but Rutan insists that the Boomerang's very asymmetry rectifies the signal flaw of the light twin--its inclination to crash when one engine fails at low speeds. Flight tests of the Boomerang prototype support this claim, and Rutan is working with a company that plans to produce the plane. Still, a lot of designers say he could have achieved the same result with a conventional design. "Burt sometimes seems to think that if it's radical, it's better," says John Roncz, an aerodynamicist who worked with him on the Voyager and Proteus. "He designs some airplanes for shock value. It's a good marketing ploy, and he's a good marketing man. He knows how to create the kind of shapes that get on the covers of magazines."