Northrop’s “Scaled Works”

Northrop Grumman is to become the full owner of Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, which has been acting as a rapid-prototyping “Skunk Works” for the US defence giant. Northrop has owned 40% of Mojave, California-based Scaled since 2003, and the links between the companies have become more evident recently.

This is not the first change of ownership in Scaled’s checkered, if illustrious, history.

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Scaled’s Proteus tests a new radar for Northrop’s Global HawkBurt Rutan formed Rutan Aircraft Factory in 1974 to develop the VariViggen, but he became famous for another tandem-seat canard homebuilt, the VariEze, and the later Long-EZ. He formed Scaled in 1982 to build research aircraft, assembling an eclectic list of outside clients and projects.

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The years that followed produced some amazing achievements. Burt designed the Voyager for brother Dick’s first non-stop, unrefuelled round-the-world flight in 1986, then repeated the feat with the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer for Steve Fossett’s solo non-stop circumnavigation in 2005. Backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Scaled’s SpaceShipOne soared out of the atmosphere in 2004 to with the X Prize for the first privately funded spaceflight.

But Scaled was also an unsung player in projects ranging from McDonnell Douglas’s DC-X launch vehicle to Bell’s Eagle Eye unmanned tiltrotor. Scaled also produced some signature designs of its own, including the ATT tandem-wing transport, Aries attack jet and the even more asymmetric Boomerang piston twin.

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One of Scaled’s first outside projects was the 85%-scale proof-of-concept Starship for Beech Aircraft, which became the company’s first buyer in 1985. Rutan also built the prototype twin-turbofan Triumph for Beechcraft. But the relationship was not to last and in 1988 Beech’s parent Raytheon sold Scaled back to Rutan.

Rutan promptly sold the company to forgings specialist Wyman-Gordon, which planned to build a plant in Colorado to produce Scaled-designed aircraft. But the first project, VisionAire’s single-jet Vantage, was one of many Rutan designs that never made it through certification to production. One that did was the Adam A500 piston twin.

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In 1999, Wyman-Gordon was acquired by Precision Castparts, which sold Scaled back to Rutan and investors in 2000. Northrop Grumman came on board as a major shareholder in 2003, buying Rutan’s high-altitude Proteus for use as a testbed and getting Scaled to build the airframe of its X-41A Pegasus unmanned combat air vehicle demonstrator.

Scaled appears to have taken on the role of conceptual design and rapid prototyping house for Northrop. During the US Air Force’s Hunter-Killer UAV contest, Scaled produced designs based on its own Proteus and Northrop’s Global Hawk, but to no avail as the competition was won by General Atomics with the Predator B.

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Northrop expects to complete its acquisition of the remaining 60% of Scaled in August. Rutan will remain in charge. He is an iconoclast who has railed against the bureaucracy of NASA and the FAA, and become an icon for the experimental aircraft and spacecraft communities. Scaled has done some of its best work when owned by someone else. Let’s hope that continues.

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