If man were not meant to fly, nobody told Burt Rutan. With some 100 experimental airplane designs to his name, Rutan, 38, is the Leonardo of light aviation. His trademarks—stubby “canard” wings near the nose to keep the plane from stalling during a climb, “Whit-comb winglets” on the ends of the main wings for stability, and sturdy fiberglass bodies for easy construction—give his rarae aves a strange yet sleek appearance. Over the years three of his planes have won Best Design at the annual midsummer fly-in of the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wis. Next to oddly elegant planes like his Quickie, Defiant, Long-EZ and Predator, Rutan says, Cessnas and Pipers “look like Spam cans.”
In the light aviation industry, Rutan flies solo. Rather than design for a large company or manufacture his own planes, he sells plans to hobbyists for $200, to which builders add $10,000 to $15,000 for materials plus 1,000 hours’ labor to make, say, an 800-pound Long-EZ. Rutan earns just enough—$35,000 profit on $300,000 sales last year—to support himself while he designs yet more planes.
His interest in flying got off the ground when his father, a Dinuba, Calif. dentist, gave up golf to buy a plane. Burt got his pilot’s license at 16. After studying aeronautical engineering at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, Rutan went to Edwards Air Force Base as a civilian flight-test engineer. He started Rutan Aircraft Factory Inc. in 1974 on a deserted airstrip in the Mojave Desert.
Twice divorced, Rutan now lives in a three-bedroom ranch house with computer programmer Pat Storch, who came to the Mojave strip three years ago. “Burt asked me to stay for the summer,” she says. “I’m still waiting for winter.” A large (6’4″) man with bushy sideburns, Rutan likes to talk about planes more than anything else. “When you’re flying,” he says, “you can do anything you want. You’ve got control of your destiny.”