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EZ-Rocket flight
Among his many accomplishments, Dick Rutan was one of the test pilots of XCOR Aerospace’s EZ-Rocket, a rocket engine technology testbed. (credit: Mike Massee/XCOR Aerospace)

A few words with Dick Rutan

From vintage aircraft, to Vietnam and Voyager, to visions of the future, Dick Rutan has seen the full spectrum of Aeronautics. Recently we were able to catch Dick in between his many jaunts and asked him a few questions.

TSR: At the age of 16 you received your driver’s license and pilot’s license in practically the same breath. At the time which were you most excited about receiving?

Rutan: I’m afraid you have that in the wrong order—I earned my pilot’s license first… Well, actually, I soloed before getting my driver’s license. That day was a highlight in my young life. Being the pilot in control—alone in the airplane—was a heady trip for this youngster.

TSR: Earning a pilot’s license at any age, let alone at the age of 16, takes effort, determination, and lots of time. What inspired you to push yourself for that goal?

Rutan: After my first ride in an airplane at the age of six (thanks, Mom Rutan!), I had an abnormal fascination for aviation—an abnormal fascination that will follow me the rest of my life.

After we built the Voyager and I could gaze upon her, I had premonitions and reoccurring nightmares that she would result in our demise. How could this overloaded, frail airplane fly successfully around the world?

TSR: You and Jeana Yeager, in many regards, pushed an aircraft’s envelope further than it had ever been pushed before. The Voyager around-the-world flight took over nine days, covered over 40,000 km, all without stopping or refueling. It was certainly a point of personal and professional pride, but was there ever a moment during that flight where you and Jeana ever wondered, “What the heck have we gotten ourselves into?” Or would it be more appropriate to ask, was there ever a time you didn’t wonder that?

Rutan: After we built the Voyager and I could gaze upon her, I had premonitions and reoccurring nightmares that she would result in our demise. How could this overloaded, frail airplane fly successfully around the world? I feared a storm—and we flew through and around many on the world flight—would reach out and grab us and tear the airplane apart…pieces would tumble into the dark ocean and no one would ever know what happened to us.

TSR: Recently Steve Fossett, in a solo flight of Global Flyer (another creation of Burt’s), duplicated Voyager’s feat and at the same time significantly reduced the flight time. If you and Burt sat down today, 19 years after the fact, and designed Voyager all over, how different would it be? Would something like the Global Flyer be the natural end result or are they simply two different creatures?

Rutan: In 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew a harrowing flight across the Atlantic. Now you can buy an airline ticket and do that. We are constantly advancing in technology and creating breakthroughs. For the Voyager flight, GPS was in its infancy, very few satellites were up. You could get positioning every 24 hours or so. Now it’s in your car and on your cell phone… That’s progress. And I agree with my brother, Burt. Had one thing been different on the Voyager – had the cockpit been larger or pressurized or designed for comfort, we wouldn’t have made it.

TSR: In June of 1997, a little over 10 years after that flight, you and your friend Mike Melvill took off on another round the world flight, in a pair of “Long EZ” planes, which enthusiasts can build at home from plans designed by your brother. Dubbed the Spirit of EAA [Experimental Aircraft Association] Friendship World Tour, the trip took slightly over 80 days (240 hours of which was spent in the air) and logged over 61,000 km. Can you give us a perspective of that trip compared to the Voyager flight, on a personal level and from a technological standpoint: cutting-edge technology of the one craft and a “backyard” craft on the other?

Rutan: Both the Voyager and my Long EZ are homebuilts. Although the EZ world flight wasn’t based on super-long-range endurance, we had plenty of time over the middle of oceans in the dark of night wondering when we’d see dry land again. The good part is the goals of the Friendship Tour were realized. We made a lot of wonderful friends, saw some beautiful countrysides in lands far away, and experienced some incredible receptions along the way.

TSR: Having going literally on an “around-the-world tour” with Mike, in those “Long EZ’s” you built yourselves, what is it that keeps you climbing into a cockpit and push the aircraft’s envelope?

Rutan: The Friendship Tour began after my good friend, Mike Melvill, mentioned he’d like to fly his EZ back home (South Africa) and asked me to be his wingman. I told him I would do it if we could keep going (around the world). What keeps me climbing back into cockpits is that same fascination I experienced as a little kid. It permeated my psyche—it was there then, it’s there now, and the fascination will remain until the day I leave this earth.

You can bet I plan to be intimately involved in the emerging space tourism industry.

TSR: A mere four years later in July of 2001, you find yourself climbing into the cockpit of another Long EZ, only this one holds a bit of a twist. The prop engine has been replaced with two 1,800-newton thrust rocket engines. Admittedly this ride is going to be a bit off the beaten path, even for you. What are your recollections of that first ride in that small rocketplane?

Rutan: Although the basic airframe was something I was familiar with, that’s where the similarity ended. Familiar prop engine gauges were replaced with those to support liquid rocket fueled engines. The two-minute powered phase is quite exciting, and once the rocket motor exhausts its fuel or is shut down, I am back in the familiar airplane gliding in for a dead stick landing.

TSR: With your early experience in the EZ Rocket, which was originally thought to be a possible suborbital flight vehicle, could you ever imagine it becoming a racing machine and what are you thoughts on the concept of the “Rocket Racing League”?

Rutan: Prizes in these projects encourage progress.

TSR: On December 3rd of this year, you will be taking the EZ Rocket out again for a little more “envelope pushing.” Can you give us some details on what you have going with that?

Rutan: It appears I’ll be setting a single record. My choices were speed, altitude, or distance. Since I’m a long range kind of guy, I chose distance. [The flight, from Mojave to California City, went off without a hitch.]

TSR: As you covered Mike Melvill and the chase for the Ansari X Prize, did you have any twitchy moments where you wanted to slip behind the controls and push SpaceShipOne to its limits?

Rutan: I was on the ground as an expert commentator for CNN. I was bursting with pride for my buddy, Mike Melvill, and confident every minute that he had “the right stuff.”

TSR: As the suborbital space tourism industry develops can you be counted as potential customer and if so, should the pilot worry about you being a backseat driver?

Rutan: You can bet I plan to be intimately involved in the emerging space tourism industry. More on that at a later date.

TSR: With the eye of someone involved in aviation all their life, often in “cutting-edge” vehicles, what are your thoughts on the state of the industry today, with a fresh look at both aircraft and now spacecraft designs and the emergence of “alt.space” companies?

Rutan: It’s a new dawn for aviation and space. With the advances made in aerodynamics, structures, and avionics, it’s time to [develop a] decent aircraft engine. We’re still working on 1950’s technology there. We have 21st century avionics, and a decent engine is of major importance so we can continue with progress. Risk and progress go hand in hand. Without risk, there is no progress. And without progress, there is no America.

In closing, we would like to express our thanks and appreciation to Dick for his time with us. More information and updates on Dick’s adventures can be found at his website, www.dickrutan.com.


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