Burt Rutan

The best known, most creative, most prolific, and most influential late twentieth century aircraft designer.

Born into an airplane-involved family, Elbert Leander “Burt” Rutan began to design and build award-winning model airplanes while still a teenager. He made his first solo flight at sixteen years of age, and his ability to look at aircraft design from a pilot’s viewpoint has been an important factor in the success of his many airplane designs.

In 1965, Rutan received a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from California Polytechnic University, where his thesis won a national award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. After graduating from college, he took a job as a civilian flight test project engineer at the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California, and began working on his first homebuilt, the VariViggen, inspired by the canard XB-70 bomber and the canard Saab Viggen fighter.

In 1972, Rutan left the Air Force to work in development and flight testing for a homebuilt kit manufacturer. Two years later, in June, 1974, he established the Rutan Aircraft Factory to develop and sell homebuilt aircraft plans. Rutan’s second homebuilt design, the VariEze, introduced in 1975, was a very efficient canard homebuilt that revolutionized homebuilding. The VariEze’s moldless composite construction of fiberglass-covered foam did not require specialized skills or tools to build and produced smooth, sculpted surfaces. The longer-range follow-up, the Long-EZ, set many distance records, including for around-the-world flights, and remains one of the most popular homebuilt aircraft. A powered glider, the Solitaire, and a push-pull, twin-engine canard, the Defiant, were his last designs for homebuilders.

In April, 1982, Rutan founded the Scaled Composites firm to develop research prototypes for government and industry. Scaled Composites firm has produced such well-publicized aircraft as the Voyager, the Pond Racer, the AD-1 skew-wing aircraft for NASA, the Beechcraft Starship prototype, the Advanced Technology Tactical Transport, the Triumph business jet, the Ares close air support airplane, the Proteus high-altitude aircraft, and the Boomerang. The firm is competing in the first private race to space: a race to develop a practical, reasonably inexpensive, reusable flight vehicle for short flights out of the atmosphere for future space tourists.

Over the course of his career, Rutan has received many awards, including Outstanding Design Awards from the Experimental Aircraft Association, the Presidential Citizen’s Medal, the Collier Trophy, the Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design, and the British Gold Medal for Aeronautics. In 1995, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.


  • Downie, Don, and Julia Downie. The Complete Guide to Rutan Aircraft. 3d ed. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1987. Discusses the development of the VariViggen, VariEze, Long-EZ, Grizzly, Defiant, Solitaire, Starship, and Voyager.
  • Lennon, Andy. Canard: A Revolution in Flight. Hummelstown, Pa.: Aviation, 1984. A useful discussion of the history and aerodynamics of canard-type aircraft, from ultralights and homebuilts to high-speed aircraft.
  • Rollo, Vera Foster. Burt Rutan: Reinventing the Airplane. Lanham, Md.: Maryland Historical Press, 1991. A well-written biography of Burt Rutan through 1990, including his background and his career.
  • Yeager, Jeana, and Dick Rutan, with Phil Patton. Voyager. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. The story of the Voyager’s record-breaking flight around the world, piloted by Jeana Yeager and Rutan’s brother, Dick.


Experimental aircraft

Military flight

Model airplanes

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Test pilots