PilotDick Rutan

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Born in California, Rutan got his pilot’s license at age 16. After a stint with the U.S. Air Force as Radar Intercept Officer, Rutan went back to school to get his military pilot wings, graduating top in his class. He pioneered the use of tactical jets in the Vietnam War, where he flew 325 missions. He was shot down once, having to eject from his F-100 Super Sabre. On a later posting with the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, he was forced to eject again, over England, when his engine failed. During his USAF career, Rutan was awarded the Silver Star, five Distinguished Flying Crosses, 16 Air Medals, and a Purple Heart. He retired from the Air Force in 1978 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The Voyager — as far as I can tell shortly before its around-the-world flight, at Edwards Air Force Base. The plane departed from Rogers Dry Lakebed at Edwards, and landed there upon its return. “That dry lake bed is sacred ground,” Rutan said. “Maybe when I die they can spread my ashes out there.” (National Air and Space Museum)

But Rutan was far from done with flying: he went on to become a test pilot, including for the XCOR EZ-Rocket in 2001. He also was the test pilot for his younger brother, Burt, who over his career designed 367 individual concepts, of which 45 have flown. He specialized in light, strong, unusual-looking, and energy-efficient air and space craft. It’s no surprise their careers continued to be intertwined: Dick Rutan is best known as the chief pilot, sharing duties with pilot Jeana Yeager, of the Rutan Voyager, designed by Burt. The mission: to be the first to fly an unrefueled non-stop flight around the world. The twin-engine Voyager weighed just 939 pounds (425 kg). It took 9 days, 3 minutes, 44 seconds to fly the 24,986-mile path, completed on December 23, 1986. They took off with 7011.5 pounds of fuel, and landed with about 110 pounds remaining — around 18 gallons.

Rutan (piloting) and Yeager during the flight. (Burt Rutan) Note: Yeager is not related to test pilot Chuck Yeager.

The project couldn’t get any big companies to sponsor the flight, so it was funded mostly by individual contributions. But thousands showed up at Edwards for the landing, thanks to around-the-clock news reports of people sighting the plane in flight. Both of the Rutans — and Yeager — were awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Aero Club, the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Ronald Reagan, and the Collier Trophy, aviation’s most prestigious award, for their achievement. Voyager was donated to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. In 2022, California’s Mojave Air and Space Port renamed itself in honor of both brothers: it’s now Mojave Air and Space Port at Rutan Field. Richard Glenn Rutan, who his mother once remarked was “Born with aviation fuel in his body instead of blood,” died from Covid-19 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, on May 3. He was 85.

From This is True for 5 May 2024

2 Comments on “Dick Rutan, Pilot”

  1. Dick Rutan is a name I know well, as my dad was Aviation and Business Editor of the Rockford Register Republic from 1954 till he retired in 1981, and I grew up around airplanes, having been one of the first children in the world to fly in an American-built jet airliner (Boeing 707) as well as the 5-AT Ford Trimotor hanging from the ceiling of the Air & Space Museum in DC. Thanks for posting his story, as I have been living in China since 2005 and, though I am a professor of history, I no longer have the aviation contacts I once had as a child.

  2. A nine-day plus voyage on an ultralight aircraft with just two people aboard raises some questions. How much food and water did they bring? And where did they store it? The Voyager is essentially “all wing” and the fuselage is small. And, of course, where did they put the bathroom?

    Actually, the body of the craft was more “all fuel tank”! But those logistics weren’t mentioned in any of the articles I used for reference. She wrote a book about it, though. They had been a couple but by the time they flew they had broken up, but Yaeger said a commitment was a commitment. Quite the pro.

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