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JIM MOORE – Legendary aircraft (and spaceship) designer Burt Rutan was in a celebratory mood Nov. 24, dispatching an email to friends that had been a long time coming: the first flight of SkiGull, the forty-seventh aircraft designed and built by Rutan or one of his companies, completed a successful maiden flight in Idaho Nov. 23.

SkiGull First Flight


Rutan was in a Piper Super Cub flown by Mike Kincaid, a former Alaska state trooper and movie pilot, who was forced to make many turns to avoid overtaking Rutan’s latest creation as test pilot Glenn Smith put SkiGull through its paces. The new Rutan airplane is an amphibious piston single with wing-mounted engine and retractable skis that are also fitted with small wheels, an arrangement that enables it to handle hard surfaces and rough water with equal ease.

At least they will, once Rutan does a little tweaking. The right ski delaminated near the site of a previous repair on landing, and, “It is clear that I will have to make new, autoclaved skis,” Rutan wrote, noting Smith “was able to taxi clear of the active runway on one good ski and one soft ski.”

Smith began the 1.8-hour test with an option: the first item on the test card was to take off for a very short hop just above the runway, though with the option to proceed with the flight if the pilot felt comfortable doing so. Smith felt confident in the airplane after liftoff, and proceeded with additional maneuvers, staying close to Coeur D’Alene-Pappy Boyington Field. The Super Cub had to do S-turns to avoid overtaking the SkiGull while Smith explored its low-speed handling characteristics. An “aggressive” flight test plan included basic stability and control tests in various configurations. Smith knocked out every item on the card before returning to land, verifying that handling and maneuverability were as good as Rutan expected.

Working within 80-knot speed and 8,000-foot altitude limits, Smith did discover a flaw: the natural-laminar-flow wing gave no warning buffet ahead of the stall, the first indication being a roll drop-off to the right. Rutan, watching from a greater distance than hoped, was unable to get a good look at tufts placed along the wing that would visually indicate airflow and help him fine tune the design.

“We did not get a look at the tufts since the (SkiGull) stalled slower than the Super Cub chase, so we do not know what part of the wing caused the roll-off,” Rutan wrote. “This will require addition of the typical add-ons, like stall strips, vortilons or a leading edge cuff.”

More than a dozen people, including Rutan’s wife and future SkiGull passenger, Tonya, were on hand for the test, which wrapped up just ahead of the first North Idaho snow of the year. Rutan has a punchlist to work through this winter, though he’ll be doing some traveling, also, one presumes: he’s scheduled to accept the National Aeronautic Association 2015 Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy at the Aero Club of Washington Dec. 11, the latest honor in a storied career.

Rutan noted in his email that he has no plans to build another aircraft, though he does plan to continue creating new designs. It will be up to somebody else to build them, however: Rutan has been working on SkiGull for 20 months in his garage, and notes “it was a grueling exercise for an old guy.”

“While I will finish the modifications and testing needed to find if SkiGull can reach the goal of being able to handle rough water, ocean swells, beaching on ocean coasts and operating from snowfields, I will not again expose myself of the challenge of laying up sticky composites, sanding foam and carbon fiber, staying up at night to monitor oven cures, etc.” Rutan wrote. “I plan to enjoy this new airplane in retirement, including its unique capabilities that combine STOL from all surfaces with ocean crossing range. It has a huge baggage compartment, so Tonya and I might even load it up for golf trips (I had quit golf 2 years ago to build SkiGull).”