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Transportation Technology

Burt Rutan Retires From Scaled Composites 87

hondo77 writes "Lost in all of the April Fool's Day fun was the news that Burt Rutan retired on April 1. 'Five of his planes now hang in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, including the Voyager, which in 1986 became the first airplane to fly around the world without refueling, and SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 became the first private rocket plane ever to put a man into space.' Enjoy your retirement, Burt. You've earned it." Watching SpaceShipOne fly in 2004 is one of the happiest memories of my life. Thanks, Mr. Rutan.
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Burt Rutan Retires From Scaled Composites

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  • Well deserved with all he's done but I don't think the place will be the same without him. I hope he's just resting and not done but if he is the rest is well earned.

    Regardless good luck Burt!
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Saturday April 02, 2011 @01:04PM (#35694206) Homepage

    Few people working today have actually designed a high performance airplane. Ben Rich, who ran the Lockheed Skunk Works and designed the propulsion system for the SR-71, wrote on his retirement that he worked on 26 airplanes during his career, but today's aircraft designer would be lucky to work on one.

    For the first time since WWII, the USAF no longer has a new fighter plane in development. If and when it becomes necessary to design one, who will know how? Nobody will have the practical experience to get it right.

    Rutan was one of the few people who consistently got exotic designs right. He will be tough to replace.

    • Except for the F-35.
    • by tsm_sf ( 545316 )
      For the first time since WWII, the USAF no longer has a new fighter plane in development. If and when it becomes necessary to design one, who will know how? Nobody will have the practical experience to get it right.

      That's kind of a weird statement. As systems become more complex the need for specialists increases. Sure, you won't find a Rutan involved in total design, but that's because it's becoming impossible to actually know this much about modern aeronautics.

      To bring it back home, would you ex
      • by Have Brain Will Rent ( 1031664 ) on Saturday April 02, 2011 @01:51PM (#35694494)
        "To bring it back home, would you expect Dennis Ritchie to be able to fabricate a modern GPU in his garage?"

        Yes. Yes I would.
      • They have pretty much reached the pinnacle of manned fighter jet design, the future is remote drones. Unmanned vehicles are cheaper, require less support in the form of maintenance, aircraft carriers, fuel efficiency, and pilot lives. The current F22 and F35 airframes already leave a fair amount of performance on the table because of the limits of a human pilot. So unless someone comes up with an inertial compensating system we have reached the point where the fighter jet technology has surpassed our abilit
        • by sycodon ( 149926 )

          All fine and good. Until you lose the signal. NOTHING can replace a set of eyeballs in the cockpit.

    • by Hylandr ( 813770 )

      The thing is there's no peer state to compete with on that level anymore. Neither side at this time can manufacture thousands of the fighters we already have vs taking the time to develop and deploy a new fighter. There's several things that are true here:

      1. - Global conflict may well be over long before any specialized requirements are even identified. Military development will be very much after the fact and attempting to predict the operational parameters of the next conflict.
      2. - There has been numerous art
    • he worked on 26 airplanes during his career, but today's aircraft designer would be lucky to work on one.

      For the first time since WWII, the USAF no longer has a new fighter plane in development. If and when it becomes necessary to design one, who will know how?

      The reason that they designed and then discarded so many aircraft in those days is that back then, *they* didn't know how.

      If I had a choice between an experienced aircraft designer from the 1960s, or just all the written design documentation from the latest planes, I'd take the latter.

    • um that isn't true.

      The F-22 and F-35 are just coming out. the scram jet engines for the next set of planes are still in testing.

      Of course the next set of planes aren't being designed they are still be theorized. As all development cycles mature they slow down.

      Saying there aren't new planes being designed is like saying there aren't tanks being designed. just because it isn't being shown to you doesn't make it so.

    • I don't know but I assume he/she will be chinese.
    • by MaroonMotor ( 967664 ) on Saturday April 02, 2011 @04:16PM (#35695380)
      All the current generation aeronautical engineers are cutting their systems design teeth on UAVs. The UAV situation is like what aircraft was in the 50's and 60's - They are relatively cheap and no one knows what the ideal/best configuration is. So you see dozens and dozens of quickly evolving designs all over the world. Aeronautical engineers are still getting trained, Just not so much on manned high performance aircraft.
      • The basic aerodynamics of the existing jets and UAV's are pretty well understood. The advances will be in the area of computer technology, satellite and earth based communications, and exotic material designs.
        • There is still a lot explore and learn core the system design (not just the aerodynamics) and layouts. We are still in the monoplane, biplane, triplane equivalent era of the UAV as far as overall configuration is concerned. Just look at the plethora of weird and amazing designs. After some operating experience these will eventually settle down to a few types which we will then know as the "classic" UAV configuration. So aircraft designers are still getting a chance to be innovative and rack up design exper
    • by bentini ( 161979 )

      The USAF no longer has a new MANNED fighter plane in development.


      • by Anonymous Coward

        Yes, the F-35 will probably be the last generation of manned fighter planes for the US, and Lockheed is even running an R+D program to develop an unmanned version of it.

    • Rutan was one of the few people who consistently got exotic designs right. He will be tough to replace.

      Indeed he will. Since he started designing aircraft, he's been a hero. The "Skunk Works" was always the top innovator, but they stuck to military designs exclusively. Rutan designed craft for the basic Joe Shmoe civilian. He started designing and producing kits for Joe to put together in his garage and fly to the local airshows. Then he started producing full blown ready made aircraft that Joe could buy. I hope he keeps a finger or 2 in the Scaled Composites pie, maybe staying on as Engineer Emeritus.

    • The next war, heck the current war is fought with drones. Those are under heavy development. Fighter planes with human pilots are last centuries tech.

  • He just doesn't come across as somebody who can sit around.

    • by Mr Z ( 6791 )
      Well, apparently he had open heart surgery a couple years ago and has had health issues since then. I'm reminded of the saying, "A sucking chest wound is life's way of telling you to slow down." Burt's not quite to that point yet. May as well quit while he's ahead.
  • I well remember the first time I heard of Mr. Rutan. It was around 1972: one of the aviation magazines published a story about the Vari-Viggen. He was testing a model strapped to the top of his car, in lieu of the wind tunnel. That was typical Rutan thinking: if you don't have something, find a simple substitute.

    I still have a copy of a magazine from 1976 (Air Progress, I think) with the Varieze on the cover, and announcing a new approach to home built aircraft. That aircraft changed the way a lot of us l

    • Aircraft won't be the same: he was one of the few people I knew of who seemed to understand both aerodynamics and structure.

      I remember being in high-school, a friend's grandfather was a retired metal shop worker who built long ezs in his spare time. It was truly inspiring to see such an advanced craft, only to find out the design was over 15 years old. The thing is one of the most graceful light aircraft I have ever seen.

    • He's retiring, not dead. Burt's retiring could be pretty good for light sport, in that, he will have lots of free time and a good chance that he might want to design himself a new light sport aircraft :-)

  • by flaming error ( 1041742 ) on Saturday April 02, 2011 @01:44PM (#35694440) Journal

    I can't help feeling disappointed to lose the service of Burt Rutan.

    I'll try to take the advice of Dr. Seuss - don't cry because it's over, just smile that it happened. Thanks for the coolest aerospace innovation ever.

  • by toygeek ( 473120 ) on Saturday April 02, 2011 @01:52PM (#35694500) Homepage Journal

    I guess you could say he's scaling back? Anyway Burt Rutan did a great job at combining imagination, technology, and the wisdom at meshing the two. If one looks at his flock of planes throughout the years you'll find some of the most unusual planes ever developed. Asymmetrical? No problem. Dual wing? No problem. Supersonic? No problem? Cheap bizjet and fighter jets? No problem.

    The man is a genius and will go down in history with Leonardo Da Vinci, Otto Lilienthal, The Wright Brothers, Charles Lindburgh and Amelia Earhart. He is truly a pioneer in aerospace and science in general. It is his innovations in composite materials and airframe design that have pushed far beyond what anybody saw coming from civilian aviation. It wouldn't surprise me if some of the "ufo" sightings people see are his creations also.

    • Amelia Earhart? What the hell? You lost me there. Earhart was just a face, men did most of the things she got the credit for. If you want to insert gratuitous females with achievements in aviation, talk about Hanna Reitsch. She was a real pilot. The kind who flew her own planes. But oops! She served Germany during WWII - inconvenient truth. No wonder she's unknown by the world at large.
      • by toygeek ( 473120 )

        This is Slashdot, not Wikipedia and its a short quick list not an all inclusive who's who.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    In 1982, I met Burt Rutan, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager at the airshow in Oshkosh. Burt was presenting his Solotaire self-launching sailplane which had just won a competition sponsored by the EAA. I was interested in self-launching sailplanes and good designs were rare. After the award ceremony, I accosted Burt, Dick and Jeana as they were walking away and they were kind enough to sit with me at a picnic table for awhile discussing airplane designs, flight characteristics and flight safety.

  • by jamrock ( 863246 ) on Saturday April 02, 2011 @02:39PM (#35694780)
    Burt Rutan is to my mind one of the towering giants of aviation history, all the more so because he continued to think outside the box and roll back the frontiers of the designer's art. In an era when design and engineering principles were already considered to be well-established, and advances were merely refinements of what had gone before, Burt managed to surprise and delight with his every offering. He is a wellspring of innovative genius, a colossus of the industry, a prodigy, a maverick, and one of my personal idols.

    Good luck, and Godspeed Mr. Rutan.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 02, 2011 @02:49PM (#35694852)

    From Burt's Wikipedia page

    On July 29, 2009, Burt Rutan drew a full house for his presentation at the Experimental Aircraft Association's EAA Airventure 2009 Oshkosh Conference entitled "Non-Aerospace Research Quests of a Designer/Flight Test Engineer" where he discussed his thoughts on his hobby of climate change.[40] Although he admitted in his presentation that he was not a climate scientist, he stated he spent most of his career on data analysis and interpretation and how it is used or misused.[41]

            "I put myself in the (Those who fear expansion of Government control) group, and do not hide the fact that I have a clear bias on [ Anthropogenic global warming (AGW)]. My bias is based on fear of Government expansion and the observation of AGW data presentation fraud - not based on financial or any other personal benefit. I merely have found that the closer you look at the data and alarmists’ presentations, the more fraud you find and the less you think there is an AGW problem... For decades, as a professional experimental test engineer, I have analyzed experimental data and watched others massage and present data. I became a cynic; My conclusion – “if someone is aggressively selling a technical product whose merits are dependent on complex experimental data, he is likely lying”. That is true whether the product is an airplane or a Carbon Credit."

    He describes his interest on the climate change topic as deriving from his "interest in technology, not tree hugging". Burt Rutan's house was featured in a November 1, 1989 article in Popular Science entitled: "21st Century Pyramid: The Ultimate Energy-efficient House".[42]

    Rutan will also not interview with Scientific American, as he claimed that the magazine has "...improperly covered man-made global warming. They drink Kool-Aid instead of doing research. They parrot stuff from the IPCC and Al Gore."

  • What does that mean anyway? Ceasing being productive? Quitting a "job" sure, but does any one believe Rutan will just stop doing anything?
  • Thanks (Score:4, Informative)

    by afidel ( 530433 ) on Saturday April 02, 2011 @03:56PM (#35695260)
    Thanks for all the great designs over the years. You made the prettiest commercial plane ever the Beechcraft Starship [] and got us closer to commercial spaceships than anyone else. Enjoy your well deserved retirement, I wish they made more like you =)
    • Burt Rutan never got close to producing commercial spaceplanes. All of his craft were suborbital.
      • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *

        Depends on what you mean by "spaceplane" doesn't it? If you're going to define it as a craft that can break orbit under it's own power and then land again under its own power (as I would be inclined to) then even the Space Shuttle doesn't even come close. But then, the Shuttle never even came close to living up to what it was initially sold as, now did it? At least SpaceShipOne delivered on what was promised.

    • by mture ( 1053660 )
      Oh man, I can remember loving the design of the Beechcraft Starship as a child enamored by airplanes in general! [sentimental teardrop]
      • by afidel ( 530433 )
        Yeah, I can still remember seeing one flying overhead one day. I had no idea what it was, just that it was an incredibly beautiful plane with the engines in the rear. I looked it up and have been a huge fan ever since.
  • Can a man like Rutan really properly retire?

    I can't imagine that his brain will just suddenly stop getting ideas and solving problems in new ways. Retire as CEO, sure. But he will either come in a couple of days a week or start doing some interesting home projects.
    That's my hope, anyway.

    Burt Rutan has made a real contribution to human knowledge and understanding. He has also been an inspiration to quite a few of us in many different fields.

  • by CompMD ( 522020 ) on Saturday April 02, 2011 @04:17PM (#35695390)

    I had the privilege of working on Rutan's Vantage jet doing design and S&C verification. At the time, I worked for the only man considered a peer to Rutan, Jan Roskam, though only those in the aerospace industry would know him. The Vantage was a great plane, and Rutan and his company earned my respect and admiration. The respect was mutual, and an engineer who studied under the president of the company I worked for went on to become a VP at Scaled.

    Another poster mentioned how there is an obvious lack of good aircraft designers today. Being someone in the aerospace industry, I agree with that 100%. This isn't just a "darn, the kids these days" rant. There is a demonstrable lack of creativity and ability in the younger generation of aerospace engineers. Some of this may be due to a lack of progress in the field (NASA has gone to hell, the USAF doesn't need any more aircraft), some of it could be due to a lack of desire to put in the effort (which is tremendous) to become a great aerospace engineer. I wish I knew. Hopefully soon we will have some truly bright engineers come to the forefront of aircraft design.

    So, let me say that it was a privilege to be in the industry both competing with and cooperating with you, Mr. Rutan. I don't know if I'll ever have such a chance again. Thank you for that, and for your contributions to aviation. Best of luck to you.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Honestly, it partly the fault of modern computers. They've stopped teaching, or at least harping on, the basics in college and once you get out into the real world you barely ever do hand calculations. I was one of the first classes where computers were ruquired for every student in my college, and I'll be honest - it's taken me twenty years to separate myself from the blind reliance and really understand the underlying science so that I can think without running simulation after simulation.

      The guys who a

      • That reminds me of a comment about Kelly Johnson by his boss. He said "that damn Swede can actually see the air". That is the highest compliment I can imagine.

    • start paying engineers like bankers, and watch the tech go.
    • My inexpert opinion is that a lot of this is due to how risk averse and regulated the aerospace industry has become (perhaps necessarily so). There seems to be more innovation among UAV designers where these problems aren't as great.
  • He made great airplanes, no doubt about that. Innovative, outside the box, advanced the field, nobody can dispute that and I admire his contributions to aviation. But at the same time Rutan is a rabid anthropogenic global warming denialist and for that my respect for him is reset to zero. []
    • by tgd ( 2822 )

      He also believes he knows, with absolute certainty, who killed JFK. If asked about it, he'll say its impossible for anyone who hasn't done his research to understand the proof.

      He also is convinced (and claims to have proof) of a theory he's made up that the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids using some sort of long-forgotten technology for casting granite.

  • Mark my words, he will be back. Folks like him get to where they are because they have this fire in their belly, and the only way to extinguish it is by working on what they love. Guess what, this doesn't go away just because you arbitrarily declare that you're "retired".

  • You have genuinely earned your retirement good man. While the saying "thinking outside the box" has become quite cliché today, you have never been boxed in by convention. I love how you truly made an Art out of "If it looks right, it'll fly right". Enjoy your retirement, you've earned it! TJ Lambert

"Mach was the greatest intellectual fraud in the last ten years." "What about X?" "I said `intellectual'." ;login, 9/1990