What happens to Scaled Composites after Burt Rutan?

Burt Rutan founded Scaled Composites in 1982 and over three decades drove its research into such risky projects as the round-the-world flight of Voyager and the atmosphere-topping climb of SpaceShipOne.

But Rutan retired from Scaled Composites seven months ago, and moved from southern California’s Antelope Valley to a lake on the foothills of northern Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains.

Will Scaled Composites, a Northrop Grumman-owned subsidiary since 2007, carry on its founder’s unique tolerance for high-risk research, and succeed?

We had the opportunity to interview Rutan last week, and we broached this topic carefully. We asked him what he hopes Scaled Composites becomes after his departure.

“Well I hope they continue what I always strived for and that is to follow some very — they’re basic, common sense stuff,” Rutan replied. “If you’re doing research, you’ve got to let the researcher decide what risks to take.”

Scaled Composites’ management style was modeled on the original “14 Rules” developed by Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, who founded Lockheed’s Skunk Works in 1943 on the same day — coincidentally — Rutan was born. Johnson retired from Skunk Works in 1975 after one of the most accomplished careers in aerospace industry.

We asked Rutan if he thinks the transition at Scaled Composites will be similar to the transition between Johnson and his successor, Ben Rich.

“I hope not,” Rutan said. “Kelly had a wonderful, unusual success in getting away with saying ‘no’ when he felt that it was important to his principles. Ben Rich was a good friend [of mine]. I enjoyed knowing him and chatting with him and so on. But he didn’t forcibly say ‘no’ and he allowed [Skunk Works] to move towards a more normal posture of a non-research company. I think the main deterioration of Skunk Works happened after his watch but there were certainly big changes while he was there.”

So how does Scaled Composites avoid that trap?

“I believe that Scaled still has some of that opportunity,” Rutan said. “Northrop has structured Scaled to work in an independent way in general to continue their work ethic and their low regulatory environment as a small company. I certainly believe and I certainly hope that Scaled will continue to do that. Creativity and breakthroughs are certainly needed.”

It is also true that Scaled Composites still has very talented designers, even though it is widely identified with Rutan. For example, Scaled Composites project manager Corey Bird is the designer of the Symmetry, which is widely credited as the finest general aviation aircraft ever built. Bird’s latest design project was known internally at Scaled as “Project Old School”, Rutan said, because it was managed in the same style that produced Voyager in the earliest days of the company. Project Old School is known publicly now as the Northrop Grumman Firebird, an optionally manned unmanned air vehicle revealed on this blog earlier this year.

“I had nothing at all to do with the design of that airplane,” Rutan said. “It doesn’t require Burt Rutan to do phenomenal, good things, and do them efficiently.”


In fact, Rutan’s deteriorating health, which included open heart bypass surgery in 2008, had forced others at Scaled Composites to take the lead on new projects.

“I realized it was a long time ago since I was the chief designer, developer and flight test engineer, and that was on SpaceShipOne, and I had started that design back in 2000,” Rutan said.

The designer of SpaceShipTwo was not Rutan, but Jim Tighe, whom Rutan describes as “much more capable technically than I ever was”.  


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One Response to What happens to Scaled Composites after Burt Rutan?

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