In April 1982, Rutan founded Scaled Composites to develop research aircraft. Since its founding, Scaled has been the world’s most productive aerospace prototype development company, developing new aircraft types at a rate of one each year.
Recent projects include the White Knight and SpaceShipOne, the world’s first privately funded spacecraft. He made international headlines on 21 June 2004, when with Mike Melvill at the controls, SS1 flew history’s-first private manned space flight. On 4 Oct 2004, SS1 won the $10M Ansari X-prize (two flights within 5 days flown by Melvill and Brian Binnie). The Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer designed and built at Scaled made its maiden flight in March 2004 and a record setting solo world flight in March 2005.
Question: What is the design philosophy that unites all of your aircrafts?
Burt Rutan: When you say what is the design philosophy of developing an airplane, it’s driven a lot by what the customer wants. When I had my own small company where we had homebuilt airplanes, most of the airplanes we developed were never marketed, so in other words they weren’t done for return on investment. They were done to explore what might be cool there and they were done for fun, airplanes like the Grizzly and Voyager. The scale is quite a bit different in that it has done several airplanes that are developed with the funding from our parent company. The Triumph and the Aries light attack airplane were funded by Raytheon or Beechcraft, which owned us at the time, but in general our work is a customer that comes to us that has a goal in mind for himself and he is thinking about return on investment in most cases. Or if it’s DARPA coming to us they may be thinking of a research breakthrough. We did one DARPA airplane that was really focused on looking for a breakthrough to do a better airplane for our Desert One failure in I think it was ’91. I forgot. I forgot when Desert One was. It might be earlier. But any rate most of them are including the commercial space thing now. That’s being done in order for them to build a business and we have to meet real specific goals because that is part of their business plan. So the environment that we’re put into has a lot to do with the research that we’ll take. We are known for trying new things even though we have a tough schedule. We did an airplane that we… that the customer wanted it flying within I think it was eight and a half months and we elected on our own to try a totally new manufacturing method for the wings and tail surfaces and control surfaces, something that hadn’t been done before, something that may not work, something that was really exciting and interesting and if it did work it’s breakthrough stuff and we decided to use it on a program that had a real tough schedule and you know at times you could question the sanity of that, but when people dig in there and knowing that they have to achieve that goal a lot of times you’ll find engineers in there Friday nights and Sundays and they’re in the shop themselves building it and trying to make it work and in general we do make it work. So a lot of it depends on what the customer demands are.
Question: What is your process for inspiration?
Burt Rutan: Okay, well I encourage and it seems backwards. You think you’d get real conservative as an old guy, but I did some of it just today. Typically I’ll look at the work done by the new engineers and we’ve got a lot of them who are just a year or two or three out of college and they tend to do things that are sometimes complex just because complexity looks cool and it looks like a more significant design result if something is complicated, but what I try to encourage people to do is to have a breakthrough by finding a way to do it more simply and even if the real simple one has a chance of not working because it’s too simple we’ll try it anyway because in trying it sometimes you’ll stumble onto a solution on why it wouldn’t work and now you’ve really had a big gain. Now you have a simple thing that does work and that’s the real challenge now. You can always make something work by adding complexity, but you can never make something affordable by adding complexity.
Question: How important will aesthetics be in the future of mobility?
Burt Rutan: Aesthetics play a role when you have finished an airplane, get it ready to fly and you paint it white. Usually our composite airplanes have to be painted white so their structure stays cooler out in the sun. And then someone comes along whose only job it is to do the artwork or the aesthetics and he puts the trim colors on and the logos and if you look at SpaceShipTwo for example it has a wonderful portrayal of Richard Branson’s mother floating in space when she was very young and was a model or something in those days. So the aesthetics go on in paint on something whose shape probably has nothing to do with aesthetics. A beautiful shape of an airplane probably is one that has good performance. Now that isn’t true for everyone’s eyes. If they look at something real stubby that is supposed to fly a long ways and has real short wings to me that is ugly even though it looks beautiful like a swept wing spaceship or a fighter. I know that for something to have the range of Voyager it has to have these real long, slender wings so frail that they bend way up. So to me when I look at that application I see wonderful aesthetics in the shape of a wing that I know will get the performance goal and true also from the stability and control, safety and the short field of operation and so on. So I’m biased because I’m thinking of performance and stability and control on aesthetics, but to answer to your questions, if we take a wingtip and put that beautiful sweep on it so it looks like a shark fin that has nothing to do with aesthetics. That does actually does give us better induced drag, in other words, higher performance.
Recorded on January 25, 2010
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.