Interview: Burt Rutan

Aerospace engineer Burt Rutan has designed some of the most important space innovations during his illustrious career. He has won the Presidential Citizen’s Medal, Charles A. Lindbergh Award, and two Collier Trophies for his work. He was included in Time magazine’s “100 most influential people in the world” and named “Entrepreneur of the Year” by Inc. magazine. Newsweek has described him as “the man responsible for more innovations in modern aviation than any living engineer.”

The aeronautical genius spent decades creating new ways to travel. He designed the legendary Voyager, the first aircraft to circle the world nonstop without refueling, and developed the Ultralite, an all-composite 100mpg show car for General Motors, and Proteus “affordable U-2” aircraft.

Rutan made international headlines in 2004 as the designer of SpaceShipOne, the world’s first privately-built manned spacecraft to reach space for which he won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in the X Foundation’s competition to spur the development of affordable space tourism. The Discovery Channel featured SpaceShipOne’s exciting development and launch in two Peabody award-winning documentaries, including “Black Sky: The Race for Space.” A “60 Minutes” profile entitled, “Burt Rutan: An American Original,” aired in November, 2004, and has been re-aired twice by CBS.

The recipient of six honorary doctorate degrees is the founder and CEO of Scaled Composites, the most aggressive aerospace research company in the world that has developed and tested a variety of groundbreaking projects from military aircraft to executive jets. Based in Mojave, CA, the firm showcases some of the most innovative, energy-efficient designs ever flown.

Rutan also loves golf, and has participated in Kevin Sorbo’s Annual Celebrity Golf Tournament to benefit A World Fit For Kids! (WFIT) since its inception three years ago. He plans to attend again this year.

“It’s a great cause for sure,” said Rutan. “Also, the parties for the tournament are World Class. You will not forget the fun you had at the event, I promise. There are great venues and great fellow competitors. Everyone returns for more!”

Rutan began golfing during the 1950s, but only occasionally – five rounds per year. His father took him to play at the renowned Pebble Beach when green fees cost only $20.00. When he lost his Airman’s Medical in 1998, rendering him unable to fly as Pilot-in-Command, he replaced his flying passion with golf. He confessed that he once got his handicap down to an 8, and played in charity events like the Bob Hope Classic for five years, an LPGA ProAm and two years at Sorbo’s tournament.

“I love golf,” Rutan continued. “It is a perfect challenge to add to any day. My handicap was about 25 from 1958 until 1998. I worked it down to an 8 in 2006, mainly by improvements in my short game. My strength went way down after the heart problems of 2007, and my distances suffered. My low handicap during 2010 was 10.4. It currently is 14.4.”

Rutan, now retired and living in North Idaho, occasionally spends his days at PGA-West in La Quinta where he focuses on golf. He approaches his short game scientifically, applying engineering and physics, and has “developed a new-concept putter that I have been playing for about eight years, as well expanded on some of the work by Dave Pelz to improve the short game,” he stated.

He met Sorbo several years ago during the Gary Player Invitational Golf Tournament.

“(Sorbo) invited me to his first WFIT tournament,” explained Rutan. “Last year my wife Tonya signed up to play, and her group won Low Net! Thus, she has a much better Golf Trophy than I do…”

A colorful character on the course, Rutan sports traditional golf gear that often includes plaid knickers, vests or sweaters and Scottish Tam o’Shanters. What’s up with that?

“Back in 1998 my wife got me a Bobby Jones outfit to wear to a costume party,” Rutan maintained. “I found the outfit to be comfortable and met my requirements for summer golf in the hot desert – no exposed skin. I then wore it to a charity golf event, and it just seemed ‘right.’ I got with Tim Berry who markets the special clothing and got a bunch of outfits. The ladies, young and old, really smile when they see the outfits… That’s why I will not go near a golf course without ‘proper attire’.”

Sign up to golf and meet Burt Rutan at this year’s 3rd Annual Kevin Sorbo Celebrity Golf Tournament, September 23-25, at Eagle Vines Golf Course, Silverado Resort, Napa Valley, CA. Contact Event Producer Lonnie Mintz via telephone at 818-880-5511 or sorbogolf@worldfitforkids.org to register or for more information.

Additional information about Rutan can be found in a new biography by Dan Alef, titled, Burt Rutan: Aeronautical and Space Legend at http://titansoffortune.com/

See more about Rutan and Scaled Composits: http://www.scaled.com/about/burt_rutan

Here are Burt and his caddie, Bradley Waits:

(Photos courtesy of Burt Rutan)

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  1. Anne
    September 14, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Thanks for giving insight into an aviation/aerospace pioneer. The photos of Burt reminded me of the late PGA golfer Payne Stewart (one of my favorites) and his unique haberdashery.

    I hope Burt & his wife have a great time at Kevin’s tourney this year. I’m sure of it.

  2. Vic Mondary
    August 9, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    Hi Burt,
    Enjoyed reading about your golf passion, I too am afflicted. I bought plans and built a vari- eze, flew it for 20 yrs. great little airplane ser.# 383 N500EZ. I am retiring in 2 yrs. from flying a Gulfstream GIIB for the Indianapolis Colts, hope to improve my golf game. Would love to play golf with you sometime. Thanks for all the great times I had in my EZ!

  3. Vic Erdelac
    June 20, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    Hi Burt,
    I am ninety one years old now, but I had the pleasure of meeting you some thirty years ago, when you gave a seminar on the E-Z in Indianapolis, Indiana. I was a guest of a friend of mine whose name was Hosea Challis,who had built many home built planes.I was not builder, but I held a commercial instructors licence and enjoyed the day very much. I have followed your career since, wish you a happy and long retirement…… Vic.

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