Rutan starts work on new light aircraft

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Aircraft designer Burt Rutan is working on a new aviation project in the Idaho lake house where he retired only seven months ago after a 45-year career that produced SpaceShipOne, Voyager and dozens of other ground-breaking air vehicles.

"I found after working on 40 airplanes in 40 years it probably is impossible to stop," Rutan said in an exclusive interview. "So I'm working on a new one."

Rutan provided few details about the new project, saying only that it uses new technology and is a "small, light thing".

The design has progressed far enough to be assigned a designation in Rutan's personal system - Model 372-3, Rutan said.

It is rare for Rutan to divulge any information about a new project before first flight. If the project fails, it is unlikely that any details will be revealed.

"If it doesn't work you'll probably never hear [more] about it," Rutan said.

The terms "small" and "light" may bring cheer to Rutan's fans in the general aviation market.

Rutan achieved his first commercial success in the home-built market long before he worked on suborbital spacecraft, round-the-world aircraft and the Beech Starship.

In the mid-1970s, Rutan sold plans for home-builders to make a series of iconic aircraft such as the Vari-Eze and Long-EZ, which featured forward canards and pusher-engines. That success allowed him to launch the Scaled Composites research and prototyping company in 1982, giving him the financial freedom to pursue his own projects.

"There are people, especially in the home-built community, who say, 'Wouldn't it be neat if Burt designed another airplane?'" said Dick Knapinski, communications director of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA).

The EAA honoured Rutan at this year's AirVenture fly-in in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Rutan did not mention a new aircraft at the event in July, but some in the EAA suspect he may be working on a new project.

"He always leaves the sentence somewhat open at the end," Knapinski said, describing Rutan's responses to questions about his retirement activity.

"The fact that he's working on another design doesn't surprise us whatsoever," Knapinski added.

Although he is working on a new project, Rutan said he is enjoying his partial retirement. Health concerns were partly responsible for driving him to retire from Scaled Composites on 31 March. Even then, Rutan said he was aware some people believed he would keep working.

"The fact that my first day off work just happened to be April Fools' day did seem to raise some eyebrows," he said.