“Testing leads to failure, and failure leads to understanding,” Burt Rutan once said. For anyone in the STEM field, failure is an inevitable part of our careers as we tackle new challenges everyday in the workplace. Unlike perfectly set problems on school exams, we face messy, “impossible” problems that no one knows the exact solution to in real life, and in the process of finding a practical solution, we fail continuously and repeatedly. Thus, developing tenacity is crucial for all STEM students, so that we are well-prepared to handle the stress and demands of the profession. If you are currently a STEM student searching for a role model with an iron will, look no further. Meet Burt Rutan, one of the most prolific and talented aerospace engineers of the century.
Rutan has always had the passion and aptitude for building planes. As a child, he often won model plane competitions in the neighborhood with his brother and gained a reputation of being a “clever designer.” Before he obtained his driver license, he would have his mother drive him around so that he could test out how well his plane flew by sticking it out of the window. When he was in college at California State Polytechnic University, Rutan even built his own small wind tunnel and installed it atop his car to help him refine his designs. These experiments led him to build the VariViggen, his first full-size plane.
In 1965, he graduated from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo with a BS degree in aeronautical engineering and went on to work as a civilian flight test project engineer for the U.S. Air Force at Edwards Air Force Base, analyzing the aerodynamics of McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom fighters, which were crashing in Vietnam from in-flight loss of control more often than from enemy fire. In 1972, he left to become Director of Development of the BD-5 aircraft for Bede Aircraft in Newton, Kansas. It was during this time that Rutan got his first full-size homemade plane (the VariViggen) flying, and he sold several hundred sets of plans to amateur builders. Afterwards, he and his wife Carolyn left Kansas and Bede in 1974 and moved to California to establish the Rutan Aircraft Factory, where he designed and developed airplane prototypes for amateur builders. He quickly gained a good reputation in the market among builders for his innovative and reliable designs. In 1986, Rutan broke a record – his plane Voyager flew around the world for nine days without refueling, making a record-setting endurance flight. Today, Voyager is retired and hangs in the National Air and Space Museum.
In 1982, Rutan founded Scaled Composites to develop research aircraft. Since its founding, SCALED has grown to become one of the world's pre-eminent aircraft design and prototyping facilities, producing new manned flight systems at a rate of more than one new type per year. “Based in Mojave, CA, his company has developed and tested a variety of groundbreaking projects, from military aircraft to executive jets to spaceships, showcasing some of the most innovative and efficient designs ever flown.”
The company website states, “Rutan retired from Scaled Composites on March 31, 2011, and is enjoying his new home in Idaho.”
Yet, it’s clear that the man has not retired from his passion, even after producing and flying 45 aircraft out of his 367 individual design concepts over his 45-year career. In 2015, he revealed his latest project, the SkiGull, which is designed to conduct takeoffs and landings from practically any surface. It is known to be in the final stages of production in his home, however, it will not likely ever enter serial production. Nonetheless, we still have a lot to gain from Rutan’s creations and ideas. More importantly, we have much to learn from his courage and tenacity to push through the boundaries and innovate. As he says, "I don't care about taking the risk that something won't succeed. That's the big difference between me and the engineers who work in aerospace. Or the managers of the engineers who work in aerospace. They're absolutely frightened of failure."
The point is clear: If we want to make breakthroughs and succeed, we must embrace failure.