Groundbreaking Design: 1981 Rutan VariEze

We have seen a number of different aircraft come across the desks here at Barn Finds, but this Rutan VariEze rates as one of the really interesting ones. That is partly because of the craft’s design, but in a large part, it is because of the story of the man behind it. He is a man who managed to break some significant ground within the aviation industry and has won countless awards for his engineering and aviation endeavors during his lifetime. A bit of investigation reveals that this particular craft was first deemed airworthy back in 1981, but that it may not have launched into the wide blue yonder for the best part of a decade. The VariEze is a complete craft that is looking for a new home. It is located in Goldsmith, Texas, and has been listed for sale here on eBay. The bidding on the Rutan has reached $10,599, and with the reserve now met, this is a piece of advanced aeronautical design that is set to head to a new home.

To understand the VariEze a bit better, it is worth knowing something of the man behind the design. For the vast majority of the population, the name Burt Rutan is not one that instantly springs to mind when considering groundbreaking advances in the world of aviation. This is a shame because Mr. Rutan has quite a list of achievements to his name. One of his more notable designs was a craft called “Voyager.” Once again, the name might not be instantly recognizable, but in 1986 this craft, piloted by his brother Dick and a lady by the name of Jeana Yeager, became the first craft in aviation history to circumnavigate the globe without stopping or refueling. Another of his designs was known by the public as “SpaceShipOne.” In 2004, this spaceplane was the first private craft to complete a manned spaceflight and was also the vehicle that secured the Ansari X Prize, being the first privately funded spacecraft to enter space twice within a two-week period. With that sort of a pioneer responsible for its design, the VariEze was never likely to be your average plane. While Mr. Rutan’s company built many of these planes, a far greater proportion was built by private owners using plans and specifications sheets that were purchased from Mr. Rutan’s company. It utilized moldless composite construction, which was a rarity in private plane construction at the time, but thanks to the success of the VariEze, it became a popular method over the following years. With a view to flying efficiency, it was utilized a “canard” design, which placed a small forewing ahead of the craft’s main wing. The result was a plane that required slightly more space in which to achieve take-off, but once airborne, was exceptionally efficient. This wasn’t a design that was particularly popular amongst homebuilt plane designers, but once again, the success of the VariEze forced more of these individuals to adopt the philosophy to remain competitive in the industry. This particular VariEze has been idle for at least a decade, but it generally appears to be in good condition. Its paint wears a few scars and marks, but there are no obvious cracks or issues with its composite shell or wings. Having said that, it would be strongly advisable to have the craft thoroughly checked by a suitably qualified engineer, because nothing gets your attention or ruins your day quite like a structural failure when you are cruising along several thousand feet above Terra Firma.

Being a light aircraft, the VariEze is not equipped to carry a lot of people. In fact, what it will carry is the pilot and a single passenger. Even then, both people would need to be relative lightweights. The craft’s empty weight is 580lbs, while its maximum takeoff weight is 1,050lbs. It has a fuel capacity of 24 gallons, so a full fuel load takes the plane’s weight to 724lbs. That leaves a margin of only 326lbs for the combined weights of the pilot and the passenger. This helps to explain why the confines of the cockpit are quite tight. The plane simply isn’t designed to cope with significant weight, so those of us who are more “heavy-set” should probably consider organizing alternate travel arrangements. The cockpit itself looks to be in good condition, with everything present as it should be. It needs a good clean, but this is a minor consideration when you consider the work that will be required to recommission the vehicle.

Being such a light and aerodynamically efficient aircraft, the VariEze can achieve remarkable levels of performance with surprisingly little power. The prototypes were fitted with air-cooled Volkswagen engines, but Mr. Rutan realized that something a bit more modern and powerful was going to be required for the production version. As a result, the VariEze was outfitted with a Continental O-200-B flat-four air-cooled engine, producing 100hp. Thus equipped, a VariEze is capable of a maximum airspeed of 185mph but will cruise happily at 165mph. Thanks to the combined efficiency of both the engine and the craft, this gives this little plane a cruising range of an astounding 850 miles. While the craft hasn’t been used for a number of years, the news would appear to be good on the engine front. It does feature a Continental O-200 engine, and this is said to have “zero” hours under its belt. Obviously it will require a thorough inspection to verify its mechanical condition, but it does offer a promising start for potential owners.

The Rutan VariEze is an interesting aircraft, and as you can see from this photo, it features an unusual and distinctive design that is best displayed whilst airborne. Burt Rutan stepped down from his position as Technical Officer with Scaled Composites, a company that he founded, in 2011. He is now 76-years-old, but retirement hasn’t lessened his desire to undertake groundbreaking design work. He is currently working on a radical craft that is designed to land on water, rough terrain, grass, and snow. He is also consulting on further projects aimed at introducing more cost-effective innovations into the aerospace industry. He still has a fertile mind, and the person who eventually buys this VariEze will be purchasing an aircraft that was designed by one of the world’s great unsung aviation innovators.


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  1. ken tilly UK Member

    According to the E bay description this aircraft has never flown so I think it would definitely need a flight engineer to prove that it’s construction is perfect and then he would have to fly it in order for it to be deemed airworthy IMO.

    Like 2
  2. healeydays

    I remember seeing one of these flying at the EAA air show in Oshkosh many years ago.

    Like 1
  3. Paul

    John Denver and my hanger partner and good friend died in one of these

    Like 3
    • Gerald

      Paul there’s a whole lot to the John Denver story, and the factual reason why he crashed. If someone is really interested in the facts of the crash they should refer to the NTSB report. Respectfully, your statement is too generic, and implies the inherent design of the plane was at fault, which it wasn’t. And to be technically correct, John died in a Long Eze not a Vari-Eze. They are very similar however.

      Like 9
      • Paul

        Gerald, you are correct,Johns was a long eze, my buddy’s was a varieze,neither crash was because of a bad aircraft,John was having a problem with a fuel selector location and my buddy Bob had a carb ice issue and landed in the bay….they are nice flying airplanes,you can’t stall or spin them….they are very safe in lots of areas. I’m sorry Gerald I should have given a better description but didn’t think the car guys would be that interested. Gerald my buddy bob designed a four place single engine version that we ran in the California Cafe 400 air race and beat his Mooney score for speed,payload and fuel burn before his death in the eze,he commuted daily to the San Francisco Bay Area and flew it IFR many times ,great,smart man and he is missed every day.

        Like 4
      • Paul

        Gerald his shoulder harness attach points were fairly close to the base of the headrest but always felt too wide to me and when he touched down on the water and the plane flipped over he hit his head on the artificial horizon and was knocked out and basically drown so please put an attachment to keep the belts from separating if you ever have a problem (God Forbid). Been trying to find some pics of his Too Easy but can’t locate any,it was on the cover of Eaa Sport plane in the 80’s. Beat his Mooney 201 and that made him very proud…fly safe and again I didn’t mean to imply it was a bad airplane….lots of fun to fly 😀 The Ellison guys that make the carbs bought it from Bob’s wife I believe and think it is up in Washington

        Like 1
    • Dave

      Thanks, you saved me a Google search.

      • Gerald

        Sorry for your loss Paul. I too lost a friend to a plane crash and know what it is to miss a friend in this way.

        I’ve rebuilt, owned, operated a Vari-Eze for the past 22 years and have nearly 2300 hours on it. I can attest to the cool, fun, fast, efficiency of these planes. I would however highly recommend the new owner of this plane to engage with the Rutan canard community for their mentoring and counseling. There’s a lot of expertise and knowledge that has been gained on these planes for the past 40 plus years and a lot of friendly helpful people too.
        I would also add the very important point that this planes elevator appears not to have the mandatory revision of extending the trailing edge. I’m referring to the picture of the canard, where it appears to me the elevator isn’t modified. Burt mandated this early on after high speed flutter became an issue on elevators not completely balanced per the plans.

        Like 4
    • Mak

      John Denver was in one with a modification to the location of gas tank switch which was behind the pilot as the previous owner always flew with his wife.

  4. Danno

    Love regarding these canard designs. I think you need a paved runway for them, because of the pusher prop?
    A few years ago, the RCMP in Canada were auctioning off a Piaggio Avanti, which had been used in place of a more common jet. Fast and efficient. Neat stuff.

  5. John H

    In 1977 I lived in a shared house with 5 guys, the own built one in the basement. Built to an extremely high level of craftsmanship.
    In 1979 he few it from Victoria BC Canada to EAA fly-in\Airshow in Oshcosh Wisconsen, thousands of airplanes show. Many of the best aircraft builder in the world show up.
    He won Grand Champion of the entire show.
    I rode in it a number of times. Super neat little plane!!!

    Like 2
  6. Christopher

    The story that I know about Burt Rutan is that he was sitting at a table at the Santa Paula Cafe and on a paper napkin drew out this design. This was not an easy build having to use hot wires to cut the foam to a template, then overlayed with fiberglass. I have seen some wings that looked like mirrors when finished. Because of the pusher prop, you can tell by the sound it makes flying overhead it is a Vari-eze. There was also a Long-Eze using a larger engine with a longer and wider cabin. A great seguay into the experimental airplane market from wood & metal construction. Very fast and very thrifty at the gas pump. Just do not store these outside in the sun due to the fiberglass construction. If I bought this, I would go over all the construction records and who signed off on the various stages leaving no stone unturned.
    This was also the same type of plane that John Denver crashed.

  7. Mike

    Just LOOK at that Old Radio…. Looks Like an old Escort.. which was outlawed almost before this plane was built…. I flew in one of these ONE TIME…when that Canard starts vibrating.. I wanted out.. RIGHT NOW… If it hasnt been flown in that long..or if it has NEVER been flown…Might as well tear it apart..and start all over.. including an engine overhaul.. If I had to buy one… I would buy one that is flying already… for what this one is can buy a much nicer..up to date one.. for that money or just a tad more….

    Like 2
  8. Christopher

    I would imagine that the FAA inspector will want to see if there are any AD’s that need to be complied with. If the canard is one of the issues that needs updating then that will have to be signed off. A borescope can look inside the cylinders to see what condition they are. If the engine has been turned over, it should be good to go. Buy it for the engine and flip it. ;)

    Like 1
  9. Will Owen Member

    There’s one of these that apparently lives at one of the San Gabriel Valley airports, because I catch a look at it once or twice a year. My alert is its signature sound, a combination of the usual single-engine drone with a hard metallic ringing edge to it.

    My favorite sighting was back in the earlier 200os, a few years after we’d moved here, and on a Saturday morning it passed over, at a lower altitude than usual and more slowly, in the company of another experimental craft – a flying wing! Too bad this was years before we all had phones with cameras …

    Like 1
  10. lbpa18

    I like the road vehicles, but the airplanes listed here always seem like they should be on a different website. Round peg, square hole thing…

    • Jesse Mortensen Jesse Mortensen Staff

      Nah, we have featured planes, trains, boats, space ships, and everything in between since the beginning and we don’t regret a single one. In fact, they are typically our most visited/commented posts. Variety is the spice of life and sometimes it’s fun to learn about something new.

      Like 12
    • ken tillyUK Member

      And yet there are currently 24 comments regarding this aeroplane so I would say that there are a lot of car guys that are also interested in aircraft, especially as it is in fact a Barn Find! (Sort of)

      Like 3
  11. Mike

    YES… John Denver… DIED one of these…. its called….Put Gas in the Dam Airplane

    Like 1
  12. ken tilly UK Member

    @Cal. According to the Wikipedia report there was no evidence of drugs, or liquor in JD’s blood at the time of the crash.

    Like 4
    • Cal

      Thank you, guess I should have looked that up myself.

  13. Ken Nelson Member

    A friend and I used to go to the Oshkosh flyins from Chicago in the ’60s. We
    d talk with Burt about his Variviggen – first design – then his Varieze next design. Foam & fiberglass. Rutan is a first class genius. He started with homebuilt model airplanes with engines, and won most model plane competitions he entered. Got so good the hobby apparently banned him from entering any more!

    His canard design, which looks like it should fall out of the sky, with a tiny canard wing up front ahead of a long tailplane, and it DOES sort of fall out of the sky, rather than stalling and crashing, as all other conventional planes do, when their airspeed falls below a certain limit as they lose lift and go head over teakettle. The canard wing loses lift, which causes it to nose-down, which automatically increases airspeed, and it starts flying again.

    The canard design had been tried before, but hadn’t been done to the formula Burt worked out. Back then, with his black hair long, he looked like an Elvis clone, but his mind was razor sharp. I believe Burts work on aerodynamics led to the tiny winglets we now see on all commercial planes – those funny upstanding rudder-like appendages we now have become used to. They improve lift and reduce turbulence if I’m not mistaken. Smart guy, and still part of our aerospace programs.

    Like 2
  14. mIKE

    no gas…. the engine will not run without gasoline…

    Like 1

    I use to work with LMSW and we would frequently work with Burt’s company Scaled composites.
    I met him several times and a lot of engineers worked on hobby projects like “Nemeisis” and we would often talk about him. I was a FTE with a specialty in structural, kinematics and vehicle dynamics and I thought I was reasonably smart in those areas. From talking to Rutan and hearing from people working for him he was so far advanced from my knowledge it wasn’t even funny.

    Like 3
  16. DayDreamBeliever Member

    Loved reading the comments on this. The people with connections and knowledge just magically appear and share. Sold through at $11,300.

    Not sure why, but I just tripped over the listing while looking for something else, and it had never shown up in my computer screen before. One other has magically appeared as well, and neither are “new” features. Hmmm.

    Like 1

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