Burt Rutan

Burt Rutan

When it comes to ground-breaking aviation design, there aren’t many heroes that can top the great Burt Rutan! “The man responsible for more innovations in modern aviation than any living engineer” according to Newsweek, Burt Rutan has played a key role in 20th-century aerospace engineering. But how much do you know about him?

Early life

Elbert Leander “Burt” Rutan was born on June 17, 1943, in Estacada, Oregon. He grew up in Dinuba, California, and was interested in aircraft ever since he was a young boy, apparently designing and building aircraft at the tender age of eight!

After graduating with a BS degree in aeronautical engineering, Rutan worked as a civilian flight test project engineer for the U.S. Airforce, before becoming Director of Development of the BD-5 aircraft for Bede Aircraft in Kansas.

Making strides in design

Rutan stayed with Bede until 1974, when he left to set up the Rutan Aircraft Factory back in California. His intention was to create aircraft for amateur builders, and in so doing, he began using the canard configuration (where a small forewing is placed in front of the main wing).

After eight years, Rutan created Scaled Composites based in Mojave, now known as the world’s greatest aircraft design facilities. Since then, he has headed up the design and prototyping of some of aviation’s most advanced aircraft. One of his most famous is the record-breaking Voyager – the world’s first plane to circumnavigate the globe without stopping or refueling!

Rutan was also responsible for the radical Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, the Quickie (a tandem wing, single-seat personal sport aircraft), and the Rutan VariEze homebuilt aircraft.


Rutan’s greatest waves, however, came when he announced the completion of SpaceShipOne – the first privately built, flown and funded manned aircraft to reach space! This incredible piece of design completed two flights within two weeks, and reused over 80% of the vehicle hardware in the process, despite carrying the equivalent weight of three people. It’s no surprise that Rutan and his team won the Collier Trophy for “the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America” for SpaceShipOne’s exploits.

In partnership with Richard Branson, SpaceShipOne has since inspired SpaceShipTwo – currently in production and planning to carry six passengers 70-80 miles into space!

Someday, we may call Burt Rutan the father of ‘space tourism’, and only time will tell on that one. One thing’s for sure though, we could all learn a thing or two about insight and innovation from Rutan’s story. As he once famously said, “Breakthroughs are what define our species”, and there’s no denying Burt Rutan’s contribution to those!

Breakthroughs don’t have to change the world – how about a personal breakthrough instead? Learn to fly today at CTI Professional Flight Training and see where your aviation journey could take you.

Leave a Comment