Vaporware is common in aviation. Bold claims about futuristic aircraft tend to never materialize. But when the legendary Burt Rutan reveals a new project, we take him at his word. This week he revealed the SkiGull amphibian, his personal dream plane, which could be one of the most versatile flying machines ever.
During a presentation at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) annual AirVenture fly-in convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Rutan pulled back the curtain on SkiGull, his latest creation, which is in the final stages of development at his property in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. As of right now there are no indications that SkiGull will ever enter serial production.
While Rutan acknowledged that the prototype has yet to take flight, the man has designed 46 aircraft in his epic career (five of which now reside in the Smithsonian), won two Collier trophies, been awarded six honorary doctorate degrees and founded Scaled Composites, one of the most impactful aerospace companies ever.
So he may just know what he’s doing, before the plane ever gets off the ground.
The big idea with SkiGull is to divorce the aircraft and its two occupants (one pilot and one passenger, seated in tandem, who will most likely be Rutan himself and his wife, Tonya) from needing traditional airport infrastructure. It’s designed to conduct takeoffs and landings from practically any surface, including asphalt runways, unimproved grass fields, rocky beaches, water (including large ocean swells) and even snow. The ability to operate in saltwater stems from its all-composite construction, which also makes the aircraft lightweight and extremely sturdy.
To handle the highly variable terrain on which it is designed to operate, the SkiGull has a clever and robust undercarriage, consisting of a retractable wheel-and-ski combination with hydraulic shock absorbers to absorb the impact of water landings. When operating from solid ground, four small wheels extend from the skis.
The SkiGull also features a strut-braced wing mounted high on the fuselage. The strut support allows for the wing to be longer and thinner, making SkiGull more aerodynamic and contributing to its long range. The wingspan measures 47 feet, but despite being wider than a school bus is long, the wing assembly will be able to fold for ground transportation. Boeing has recently experimented with strut-braced wings for a future airliner concept called the ecoDemonstrator. The configuration is said to offer five to 10 percent fuel savings.
Decoupling from airports also necessitates an engine that doesn’t rely on aviation fuel (which can be hard to find outside of a flight facility), so Rutan selected a Rotax powerplant that uses the same gasoline you would put in your car or boat. Two small electric auxiliary motors paired to reversible propellers can also provide an extra push on takeoff as well as assist with securing SkiGull to a dock.
Rutan estimated that SkiGull would have a high cruise speed of 140 knots and be able to get airborne from water in just 460 feet. But the most amazing aspect of the aircraft’s claimed performance attributes is its range. Rutan has designed the SkiGull to fly from California to Hawaii nonstop, a distance of roughly 2,500 miles. That’s nothing too crazy for a commercial airliner, but for a little plane it’s a bit more impressive.
Although it wasn’t discussed in Rutan’s presentation, the mix of capabilities and overall versatility of the aircraft would make for a fantastic unmanned platform. Robotic SkiGulls could deliver payloads to remote places inaccessible to most other fixed-wing aircraft, while being able to travel distances far greater than helicopters. For disaster relief or search and rescue, this could be a game changing platform.
SpaceShipOne slung underneath White Knight on takeoff in Mojave, California in 2004
Years ago, Burt Rutan was heralded as the Magician of Mojave, which is reminiscent of
Nikola Tesla’s Thomas Edison’s nickname of The Wizard of Menlo Park. With a portfolio of successful aircraft designs that include SpaceShipOne, Voyager and the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, this man possesses the credibility, resources and, most importantly of all, the sideburns to execute on the bold claims he set forth this week in Oshkosh.
Having retired from Scaled Composites in 2011, Rutan has clearly been keeping busy (he’s also a Co-Founder of Stratolaunch Systems). With one of the most storied careers in aviation history, Rutan’s lifelong habit of garage tinkering (beginning with the VariViggen in 1968) has produced some of the most popular and inspiring designs ever, and this new project may be very well be the capstone to this amazing aviation lineage.
The SkiGull may be Rutan’s final winged creation, and by all accounts it appears that it is going to be an amazing machine for he and his wife to ride off into the sunset. Let the adventure begin!
Correction: Nikola Tesla was misidentified as The Wizard of Menlo Park. That nickname should have been attributed to Thomas Edison. I regret the error. -CK
Photo credit: Burt Rutan top shot - Bebeto Matthews/AP, SpaceShipOne and White Knight - Laura Rauch/AP, Burt Rutan bottom shot - Elaine Thompson/AP, all others via Twitter/Public domain
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