The genius that is Burt Rutan

20 Jun
June 20, 2013

Genius is a word that can often be used inappropriately.  However, where Burt Rutan is concerned it’s the right word to describe his work and, perhaps more importantly, his approach to the complex challenges he has overcome.  Burt Rutan isn’t a name that most people are familiar with but as you’ll see in this week’s post it’s a name that has quietly delivered so much.


I first came across the name of Burt Rutan while watching a compelling documentary about a little company called Scaled Composites that was trying – it seemed against all the odds – to win the Ansari X-prize  – a $10 million prize for the first private company to put people into space.

As I watched this documentary I became gripped by Burt.  Firstly he was clearly an exceptionally talented designer and engineer.  But there was more.  He was a man of smiles, gentle humour and a man who would readily praise the achievements of the team over himself – and, by consequence, an exceptional leader.

Burt has aeronautical design in his blood.  Born in 1943 in Estacada, Oregon, he displayed an early interest in aircraft design.  By the time he was eight years old he was designing and building model aircraft.  His first solo flight piloting an airplane was in 1959 at the tender age of 16. By 1965 Burt had graduated third in his class from the California Polytechnic State University with a degree in aeronautical engineering – what else?!

Burt learned about the performance of aircraft the hard way.  From 1965 to 1972 he was a civilian flight test project engineer for the U.S. Air Force at Edwards Air Force Base, working on nine separate and complex projects.

By June 1974 he wanted to spread his own wings (pun intended) and created the Rutan Aircraft Factory where he designed and developed prototypes for several aircraft, mostly intended for amateur builders.

In April 1982 Burt Rutan founded Scaled Composites, which grew to become one of the world’s pre-eminent aircraft design and prototyping facilities.

If you’re still wondering about Burt’s abilities then cast your mind back to the Virgin Atlantic Globaflyer, the first plane to circumnavigate the globe without refuelling.  Remember it?  That was one of Burt’s designs!

So what else is it about Burt that captivated me?  Well, in previous posts I talked about the art of simplicity and Burt applied that in spades!

When he was developing SpaceShipOne he realised that the amount of energy required to lift a rocket into the sky was massive.  If you recall, the Saturn V rockets that took man into space and then the moon were 360 feet high, 33 feet wide and weighed in at 6,200,000 pounds – the largest rockets ever developed.  Burt’s solution – fly the rocket to a height of 60,000 feet and then fire the engine.  Problem solved.

But re-entry is a tough one.  The speed of the rocket against the earth’s atmosphere creates massive heat – which is why the space shuttle was clad with heat resistant tiles.  Burt’s solution: re-enter slowly – so he designed his rocket with movable wings to slow it down and avoid the problem.  Simple!

And there’s more.  Burt realised that the tail fin of SpaceShipOne wasn’t working as well as it should do.  He needed to try a number of different designs but didn’t have access to expensive wind tunnels.  His solution – tie each new design onto a pole, cover it with ribbons to monitor the airflow, put it on the front of a truck, then drive it as fast as possible along the runway and video it.  Then slow the video down and hey presto – you’ve got your results!

Burt has given us so much.  SpaceShipOne was such a hit that it now forms the core of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic which will use SpaceShipTwo to take civilians into space as day tourists.  Burt broke the mould.  He is massively practical and has achieved what so many people had thought impossible.  Genius is an overused word but Burt deserves it.

The learning

So what can we learn from Burt?  What can we apply in our businesses today?  Well, Burt never let the impossible stand in the way of the achievable.  He looked at problems in the way an uninformed child would.  He never asked for more resources or baulked at the immense nature of his challenges.  He took one step at a time, retained his smile and humour and he delivered.

Here’s to Burt Rutan – a true genius and a fantastic leader!

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