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Rutan Aircraft Expressed in LEGO Form

Jeff Rutan creates building plans

By Fareed Guyot, Manager – Electronic Publications, EAA 388642

The inset photo is from a postcard and shows the entirety of the Rutan fleet at Oshkosh, probably taken in the 1970s according to Jeff Rutan. The larger photo recreates the gathering. A photo of several  Rutan designs parked in a circle lead an extensive review of homebuilts seen at Oshkosh ’82 in the October 1982 issue of Sport Aviation.

The entire 1/30-scale collection, which can be built from plans. Jeff Rutan hopes to offer the plans for sale in 2012.

Cole Zellner holds the model of Dick Rutan’s Voyager, which he built from the plans developed by Jeff Rutan. The model is signed by Dick and Burt Rutan and is part of the exhibit that debuts in the EAA AirVenture Museum during AirVenture 2011.

View the photo gallery

June 16, 2011 — Thousands of people have built Rutan-designed aircraft, but soon you may be able to build nearly all of them including WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. Jeff Rutan, son of Burt, and Jeff’s nephew and Burt's grandson, Cole Zellner, have designed and built 65 models of both Rutan Aircraft Factory and Scaled Composites aircraft from LEGO-brand plastic building blocks. The 1/30, 1/45, and 1/100-scale models are impressive and 45 1/30-scale models will be on display as an exhibit at the EAA AirVenture Museum as part of “Rutan Day” at AirVenture 2011 and continue through the end of the year.

The project to build the models began after Cole, 10 years old at the time, attended a pre-public roll-out of WhiteKnightTwo in 2008 and expressed interest in building a LEGO version of the mother ship. Jeff, who is a longtime software developer, had seen another friend build a 2-foot-tall LEGO version of a Mario Bros. video game character using the same 3-D design software he happened to be using at that time. That inspired Jeff to do the design work to build a similar model of WhiteKnightTwo, but soon the expense and the undertaking led Jeff to convince Cole that building a SpaceShipTwo model would be a good first step.

“He and I each built one and we built another one and gave it to my dad for Christmas that year,” Jeff said. “Then we thought it would be cool to make a bunch of these and sell some plans books so other kids could build these with their own LEGOs.”

See a time-lapse video of the SpaceShipTwo build below

Jeff soon embarked on the design work, much of it done in 3-D, and has created an eight-volume series of plans books that cover all of Burt Rutan’s most notable designs, aimed at children 10 to 15 years old, as well others who enjoy LEGO modeling. You can build nine of RAF’s homebuilts including the VariViggen, Long-EZ, and Solitaire. Other RAF aircraft are available such as the Grizzly and the Catbird, whose full-size elder is making an appearance at AirVenture this year.

“The (LEGO) bricks are rather large so you end up with a low-resolution, impressionistic version of what you want to build,” Rutan said of the challenges in designing the models. “But I wanted to get as realistic as I could in a scale that would work from the smallest to the largest of the ships. It worked out to 1/30, which is about 1 centimeter equals 1 foot.”

Other volumes of the plans focus on Burt Rutan’s years as the head of Scaled Composites including lesser-known designs such as the ATAC Predator, and the Pulse-Detonation Long-EZ. The plans are also grouped in interesting categories such as “World Records with Dick Rutan,” “First Flights with Mike Melvill,” and “High Adventures with Richard Branson,” which includes Steve Fossett’s Global Flyer and the Virgin Galactic fleet.

Visit Rutan’s Aerospace Bricker site for a look at the complete collection

Both Jeff and Cole will be at AirVenture this year and the models are already here being prepared for the exhibit. Jeff says one of the challenges of designing the models with LEGO bricks was creating the overlapping construction so that the models will hold together under their own weight without any glue. Rutan glued his models together for easier shipping as he loans the collection to different museums. EAA AirVenture Museum Director Alan Westby is excited to have the collection, which includes a model of Dick Rutan’s Voyager that was built by Cole from the plans and is signed by both Dick and Burt Rutan.

“It’s a wonderful celebration of Burt’s airplane designs in a unique and interesting format,” Westby said.

“It’s a really cool tribute by a son of his father’s work.”

 So far Jeff has not found a publisher for the plans, including LEGO, but wanted to have the exhibit in Oshkosh partly because Burt was being honored this year during AirVenture. Jeff hopes to have the plans available in 2012, but the models will not be offered in kit form because while LEGO does sell bricks through its store, they are not available wholesale. Jeff says even if one doesn’t build the models the plans books contain quite a bit of aeronautical educational information including the plans, photos, and background information on each aircraft.

Follow the design process of Jeff and Cole's first model, SpaceShipTwo

Jeff Rutan never worked directly for his dad but he has worked on at least one of his projects. In college Jeff began to focus on computer science, although Burt’s own thoughts on computers helped cement his career path. Burt gave Jeff an Apple II computer and told him that if he (Burt) was getting started in his career again he wouldn’t go into airplanes, he would go into computers.  Jeff would go on to develop a 3-D drafting program for the Apple II in college and eventually worked for Hughes Aircraft, Lockheed, and TransCore. Jeff developed the avionics software for RAF’s Boomerang along with hardware engineer and friend Art Ortez, who designed the wiring. Their design uses a Macintosh PowerBook computer to monitor many of the systems on the aircraft.

Read Jack Cox’s 1996 article about the Boomerang

Time-lapse video of the SpaceShipTwo build including meal breaks and subliminal messages


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