A Conversation with Burt Rutan

About the electrification of general aviation

I recently asked legendary aircraft/spacecraft designer, Burt Rutan, about his thoughts on electric aviation and the future of general aviation. When I think of Burt, and everything he has brought to the world of aerospace, I think of innovation, but I credit Burt more with making flight accessible. Throughout his career, from his early days in composite homebuilts to his contributions to (or creation of) space tourism, Burt has made it possible for all of us to fly.

Burt has been retired for a few years now and unfortunately general aviation hasn’t continued to move in the direction of being accessible. The barriers to flight remain high and many consider it too costly and time consuming to pursue a pilot’s license. However there are some new advancements in the field that look to turn this all around. One specifically is the development of electric aviation.

Since Burt spent his life going against the norms to create accessible flight I was curious to hear his thoughts on some of the new advancements in the field of aviation. Below you will find a transcript from our conversation.

Me: I know electric aviation isn’t anything new to you. In fact in the early 2000s you were way ahead of everyone (as usual) with your Model 367 BiPod gasoline-electric twin-pod flying-car.

What lead you to design the Model 367, what were some of the challenges you faced, and why do you feel it never made it past the initial concept?

Burt: The BiPod was my last airplane design at Scaled before I retired in 2011. It was designed to be a 2-place, plug in Hybrid, very much like the Chevy Volt — It could be filled up either with an electric plug or with car gas.

I was curious to find if it was feasible, so I started the program without a customer. It flew a short hop ‘first flight’ the day before I retired.

The BiPod program was planned to be in two phases: one (with no propellers or gas generators) to test its handling as a car using electric wheel drive, and one with the complete system, to test its flying performance and handling.

Only the first phase was completed when I retired, with airplane flying limited to short glides down the runway after electric wheel launch. It flew well, but Phase two was cancelled after I retired and it was never completed. Scaled said it would only proceed if it had a customer.

Me: Today there are a number of companies creating a new generation of electric aviation. Some of the most promising concepts are Zunum Aero’s 10 to 50-seat hybrid electric regional aircraft, Ampaire’s retrofitted electric 7–9 passenger aircraft and Bye Aerospace’s fully electric trainer the SunFlyer 2.

What are your thoughts on these designs and how do you see their futures? Is there another concept you find more promising?

Burt: Right now, an electric trainer (to replace the 1959 Cessna 150) is feasible and I expect many of these will be developed and produced soon. However, a commuter or an airliner is not feasible until there are more advances in battery power density. I see no real benefits in efficiency or emissions, since these airplanes are, in general, using coal for fuel, with the losses seen in transferring that energy to the batteries.

Me: Currently most of the major car manufactures, like GM, Ford, Volvo and Toyota, have plans to move their entire inventory to fully electric vehicles. This is exciting news but the electric car concept has been struggling for many years to get to this point.

I know one of your most loved cars was GM’s fully electric EV-1. Sadly the company decided to stop making the EV-1 because it “threatened the livelihood of the entire automotive industry” (Adams 2006.) Do you think the electric airplane companies mentioned above will go through similar troubles?

Burt: I did enjoy my leased GM EV-1, driving it for 7 years before GM recalled it and crushed the entire fleet. It was well designed and more efficient than the new crop of electric cars. It had to be super efficient (low aerodynamic drag, weight and rolling friction) because it had the old-technology lead-acid batteries. It had a range of only 80 miles. I would always chose it for the daily drive if I needed less than 60 miles for the day.

Of course, with modern batteries, practical cars do make a lot of sense. The big problem now is the higher purchase price and the high cost of repair when the batteries fail. Consumers also look at per-mile costs when selecting a new car and as long as it costs less to operate, that will favor electrics. Right now, I would like to have an electric car, but would still need a gas car for the long trips. Tonya and I drove about 2,600 miles on our recent trip last month. That would have been inconvenient with an electric car if we were limited by the range and charge times of those now available.

Your claim of “threatened the livelihood” is not true. It was all about cost and poor sales. If you divide the number of EV-1s built by the total costs spent by GM, my car actually costs more than $600,000!

(source: Adams, E. (2006). Popular Science. Review: Who Killed the Electric Car? Corporate and governmental bad guys are implicated in this documentary about the death of GM’s beloved EV-1 plug-in.)

Me: Why don’t you own a Tesla?

Burt: The answer is cost and/or availability.

I have a rich neighbor who owns a Model S Tesla. He likes the car, even though any long trips leave him stressed the same as I was in 1997 with the EV-1 — can I make it home and where can I get a charge.

I will have to wait until the cost is closer to the gas cars and the fill-ups are convenient.

Me: Another area you were ahead of your time was in the development of the air taxi service. I’m curious on your thoughts of Uber’s plan to reduce city congestion with Uber Elevate?

(Uber Elevate’s urban aviation ridesharing concept is a network of small electric aircraft that will take off and land vertically (aka VTOL aircraft or Vertical Take-off and Landing.) They feel this will enable rapid, reliable transportation between suburbs and cities (but mainly within cities.) The company’s vision is to launch in 2023 in Dallas, Los Angeles and in a third unnamed international city allowing customers to simply push a button and get a flight on-demand.)

Burt: The need for eVTOL urban aircraft is driven by the failure of cities to solve the congestion problem. During large parts of the day, It takes nearly 3 times the time to drive across Southern California than it did in the 1950s!

Pilot-less eVTOL transporters will be very difficult to certify and their acceptance will be severely limited by the noise they make. It will work to have a few of them, landing on rooftops. However in my, and maybe your lifetime, they will not replace ground transportation for a number of reasons not being discussed by the developers.

I started my career working for the Tri-Service VSTOL test team at Edwards AFB in 1965. It was a renaissance in VSTOL with about 25 different VTOL types world wide. All that came out of it for today is just the F-35, the Osprey and the Harrier. Because of the cost and noise, none of these would be accepted for commercial aviation.

Me: Finally what do feel the future of general aviation holds and how is electric aviation a part of it?

Burt: Future of what we call “general aviation”? Bleak. It has been slowly dying since the 70s or 80s. Airport closures and fewer licensed pilots. I see nothing currently offered by “electric aviation” that will stop that decline.

While interesting, I also found our conversation a little disappointing. I wondered how someone who was so revolutionary in general aviation (creating the gasoline-electric twin-pod flying-car) could have ever given up on it? I guess it is understandable when one considers the challenges faced by anyone who pursues the dream of flight, but is it time to give up? I would argue, not a chance!

Electric aircraft and new training technologies are already showing that they can cut the training time and cost in half. The need for better transportation solutions have brought new technologies and concepts to the industry. People are actively looking for new ways to alleviate city congestion, help the environment and enhance quality of life. General aviation is still very much a part of that conversation but the key is in making it accessible.

Burt has even been quoted in the past as saying that “everything looks nonsensical before it works.” I have high hopes for electric aviation and in all the companies working to develop the future.

I come by this “anything is possible” view of the future because I was raised a Rutan. You see, Burt is my uncle and my childhood was filled with conversations of “impossible” flying machines. Several of which, by the way, hang in the Milestones in Flight Gallery located in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington DC.

I would like to thank Burt for taking the time to share his thoughts and I look forward to our many future conversations.

Written by Jill Rutan Hoffman — Founder/CEO Path 2 Flight, LLC.