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The Man from Wild Blue Yonder

From His Eye-Popping Mojave Desert Home, Controversial Legend Burt Rutan Dreams Up Planes That Defy Conventional Wisdom and Push Aviation Design to New Heights.

November 21, 1999|PRESTON LERNER | Preston Lerner's last article for the magazine was on movie market researcher Joseph Farrell

The Boomerang's gotten plenty of ink, all right. But the suggestion that it's merely a PR coup causes Rutan's eyes to turn arctic. "Conventional wisdom," he says, "is just another word for something that looks like it might work. If you're doing something conventional, you're just revisiting something that somebody else has thought of. That's not creative. If I had the choice between something conventional and something different, and both of them produced the same result, I'd try something different. Because that's how we learn. That's how we make progress."

Rutan swivels over to a filing cabinet and pulls out a folder bulging with the earliest drawings he's been able to find of every one of his projects. Some are computer-generated. Many are scribbled on scrap paper. Altogether, they form an Information Age version of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. "The media overplayed the whole thing about me drawing the Voyager on a napkin," he complains as he leafs through the pages. "That wasn't true." He suddenly freezes. "Actually, here's one that is drawn on a napkin," he says, amazed.

Having a fine old time, Rutan shuffles through the folder. He points to a rendering of a balloon gondola: "This was for a Hollywood guy who wanted to set a world record for free fall. He wanted to drop from 200,000 feet or something like that." He pauses over a fighter concept: "Here's the little airplane we were going to do for Joint Strike." Then he taps a sketch of something vaguely helicopterish: "Here's one that could take off from your yard, fly nonstop to Chicago and land on a roof. He lingers longest on the drawings of the Proteus, his biggest current project. The design brief called for a plane to fly at high altitude for extended periods while carrying a giant antenna pod, the idea being that it could serve as a low-cost alternative to a telecommunications satellite. Most designers would have started with a conventional airplane and then figured out how to carry the telecommunications pod. Rutan, ever the contrarian, reversed the engineering: His cartoonish initial concept depicts an enormous pod with wings sticking out of it.

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.

Rutan lopes out of his office into Scaled Composites' spacious, spotless shop and stops underneath the canard of the Proteus, recently back from a test flight at 49,000 feet. "We hope it will be used for telecommunications, reconnaissance, ozone-sniffing and so on," Rutan says. "But it's also uniquely suited for space tourism. My goal is to make 40,000 spaceship pilots in four years [after the Proteus is fully operational]."

That's no misprint. Rutan plans to mount a rocket on the Proteus and air-launch the sucker into space from an altitude of 35,000 feet. These paying "trainee spaceship pilots" would take turns at the controls of the rocket and spend a few minutes beyond the 100-km threshold that marks the boundary of space. It sounds plausible. In theory. But 40,000 astronauts? In four years? A piece of cake, according to Rutan. "Spaceflight will prove to be less dangerous than developing the airplane was," he says blithely. "As it is, hundreds of people are killed every year climbing Everest, rafting down rivers, jumping motorcycles over cars. They can decide for themselves what kind of risks to take. That's the kind of attitude that pushes creativity, productivity and technology. We need a goal. We need a challenge. We may even need to be scared. Once we lose the courage and curiosity to explore, we sink into mediocrity, and we're just a few generations down the path to being nothing but savage animals."


Visitors don't need an air-traffic controller to find Rutan's home in suburban Mojave. He lives on Rutan Street. His mailbox is fashioned out of the discarded tail section of an airplane he designed, built and flew for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. But the dead giveaway is the house itself, an angular anomaly among the tract housing and Joshua trees of the high desert. Although an architect drew up the plans, the house is obviously the product of the same design aesthetic that Rutan applies to his airplanes--inventive, unorthodox and virtually without precedent.

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