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ICONOCLAST OF AIRCRAFT DESIGN REFUSES TO WORK BY THE BOOK.

Byline: Deborah Hastings Associated Press Writer

Burt Rutan does not abide fools, nor does he have a long attention span.

``Don't bore him,'' his secretary warns.

Rutan, 52, created the Voyager - that strange, thin-limbed aircraft that in 1986 became the first to circle the Earth without stopping for gas - and he has little time for things outside his scientific view of the universe.

An enigmatic and eccentric soul, Rutan is this country's most innovative aircraft designer, and he has built a life and a livelihood solely on his own terms.

``I don't look at other people,'' he says, staring off into the middle distance. ``I do what I like to do.''

Rutan, his fourth wife, Tonya, and two parrots dwell outside Mojave in a pyramid-shaped house void of right angles, save for mundane necessities like the washer and dryer, which just goes to prove not everything can be bent to Rutan's version of the world.

Even the pool table is a trapezoid, which makes bank shots a nightmare.

At Scaled Composites, the company Rutan founded in 1982, just down the road at the Mojave Airport, he designs aircraft, rockets and, sometimes, cars for big companies, defense contractors and the federal government.

They look like nobody else's, they move like nobody else's and they exist as silent testament to the fact that one man can buck the entrenched order of things and succeed.

In 1995, Rutan was inducted in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.

His first company, Rutan Aircraft Factory, turned private aviation on its ear in 1975 with the VariEze; a build-it-yourself lightweight plane made from composites. With no tail and a nose-mounted wing, the sleek VariEze is nearly stall-proof.

The Voyager was designed at RAF in Mojave. Burt's brother, Dick Rutan, and Jeana Yeager piloted the plane around the world, bringing fame to all three.

Fame is not something Burt Rutan relishes. But it has allowed him, in many respects, the freedom to do as he pleases in aircraft design. He rejects most interview requests and grudgingly tolerates the few he accepts.

``Why would you want to talk to me?'' he asks incredulously. ``What are you going to write about?''

In the sometimes eccentric world of aviation design, Rutan is an iconoclastic folk hero. At Scaled Composites, which employs 95 people, his reach often extends beyond aircraft.

For General Motors in 1992, he constructed the Ultra Light, a plastic composite show car capable of carrying four passengers at a fuel efficiency of 100 miles per gallon.

In 1988, Dennis Conner won the America's Cup with a rigid 85-foot sail designed by Rutan's company.

Among its more recent accomplishments is the Bell Helicopter Eagle Eye, an unmanned tilt-rotor vehicle, designed and fabricated at Scaled Composites last year.

Not surprisingly, Rutan's company runs nothing like a traditional one. ``An engineer is not allowed to design something unless he is able to build it himself,'' Rutan says.

Raised in the San Fernando Valley, Rutan became fascinated early on with planes. He can't really explain why.

Perhaps it is because Rutan's father, a dentist, got a private pilot's license and teamed with four others to buy a plane when his sons were young.

Dick Rutan, who later went to Vietnam as an Air Force pilot and won five Distinguished Crosses, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, liked flying. Burt Rutan liked designing planes.

``I got thoroughly engrossed in planes before the age where most boys get engrossed in girls, drugs and rock 'n' roll,'' says Burt Rutan.

As a young civilian, Rutan ``had the best job in the Air Force,'' he says. ``Sitting in the back seat of a fighter testing aircraft was a lot better than being the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,'' he says. ``It's kind of like a guy in an assembly line being offered a job fishing or hunting.''

After seven years of it, however, Rutan found he really didn't adore it. ``Those guys love it. And I don't. It scares me.''

He decided to stick to design. After a brief stint as director of the test center at Bede Aircraft in Kansas, Rutan came to Mojave in 1974, started RAF, then started Scaled Composites in 1982.

And he now has something else in mind besides designing aircraft.

Space. Especially what he perceives as the United States' dismal performance in that frontier.

He has this idea, which sounds something like the Love Shuttle.

``It's a kind of astronauts' training school, if you will. In some place like Cancun. It would be like a regular two-week vacation with great food and things to do at night. It's kind of like a ride at Magic Mountain,'' he says.

The price tag would be hefty at first, because of start-up costs, but participants, most of them just average Joes, would get to orbit Earth in a space shuttle.

``There's no reason it can't be done,'' he says. ``And it isn't just a roller coaster ride. You are officially added to the list of astronauts.''

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Photo: (color) Burt Rutan

Designed record-setting craft
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 8, 1996
Words:849
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