December 14, 2022
Today in MSFS, to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday, I’m go to try out a unique made-in-America piece of innovation, the Rutan Long-EZ, over some uniquely prohibited American airspace: Washington, DC.
The Long-EZ may just look kind of weird to you, but its story harkens back to the early days of aviation pioneers, and has helped pave the way for tourism in space. So stick with me on this one.
It all begins with two brothers from California, Dick (left) and Burt (right) Rutan, who both learned how to fly by the age of 16.
Dick became an air force pilot, flying combat missions over Vietnam.
Burt, meanwhile, Burt became a flight test engineer at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, helping improve the safety characteristics of the F-4 Phantom (it tended to stall in flight when fully loaded).
Nevertheless, what Burt really dreamed of was designing and flying his own plane. He wanted a create an affordable plane for private pilots that had the performance of a jet fighter.
He took inspiration from a Swedish fighter jet, the Saab Viggen, which had a “canard” wing layout: smaller fore-wings that gave the plane extra lift and helped it take off and land on shorter runways.
The term “canard” comes from the Brazilian-French aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, who thought the design made it look like a duck.
Burt Rutan dubbed his first model, built in 1972, the VariViggen, after the Swedish fighter jet. Rutan himself even appeared in the cult science fiction film “Death Race 2000” flying the futuristic-looking plane.
The VariViggen was made of plywood. Rutan soon shifted his designs towards the use of fiberglass. By 1975, he introduced the VariEze:
The Long-EZ is a larger, 2-seat version of the VariEze, introduced in 1979. Both planes were sold as kits for homebuilders, who shaped the fiberglass using molds. All-in, a Long-EZ typically took 600-1,000 man hours and about $5-9,000 in parts to build.
Because it’s a kit, the interior of the cockpit could vary quite a bit, depending on the builder’s budget and preferences. That had some implications that I’ll talk about in a bit.
The Long-EZ is a “push” design, meaning the propeller is behind the cockpit. This is the back of the airplane, not the front.
“Push” airplanes were initially popular in World War I because you could fire a machine gun forward, without hitting the propellers. But they were hazardous because if you crashed, the engine (moving forward) could crush the pilot.
The Long-EZ doesn’t have any flaps. Instead, it has a speed brake (a panel that lowers) to slow you down on approach and landing.
Okay, before I talk about the legacy of the Long-EZ, let’s take it for a spin. I’m taking off from Reagan National Airport. In the real world, there is no general aviation allowed at Reagan, security rules only permit scheduled commercial flights.
But this is the Fourth of July, we can do what we want! At least on Microsoft Flight Simulator.
You fly the Long-EZ with a side stick on the right, which takes some getting used to. The first thing I notice is, it’s a very sensitive aircraft.
The first rule in the manual is, never raise the front canards above the horizon. I’m going to break that rule repeatedly, but it’s a good rule.
So if you notice, the front landing gear retracts. The two rear wheels are fixed.
Let’s talk about Washington DC airspace for a moment, and why you would never be allowed to do this in real life.
After 9/11, new flight rules were created severely restricting access over Washington, DC. To even go within 30 miles of the center of DC, you have to take a special online FAA class, file special flight plans, and follow very specific entry/exit rules.
Within that, there’s a 15-mile zone called the FRZ (pronounced “Freeze”) that’s completely off limits unless you have special permission – which is only granted for good reasons.
What happens if you try to enter the FRZ without authorization? Well, first they will shine colored lasers at you to get your attention. Then fighter jets or helicopters will intercept you. Then you’ll be shot down. So yeah, don’t do this for real.
I said that Burt Rutan wanted to make a private plane that could fly like a fighter jet. Well, the Long-EZ can certainly do acrobatics.
I mentioned it’s very sensitive. It’s also extremely agile. You can do steep turns on a dime.
It’s also incredibly forgiving. There are a dozen times I should have crashed, and it recovered amazingly every time.
The Long-EZ was designed to be nearly impossible to stall, at least in normal flight (we’ll talk about landings later).
Hey, looks like there’s a helicopter on the White House lawn. Bet they’re happy to see me.
Zooming past the Watergate Complex …
Upside down over the White House.
Anyway, you get the idea.
A fun virtual way to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Flying down the Mall, I spot, ahead to the right, the perfect segue to my next topic: the National Air and Space Museum. Because hanging inside the museum are two landmark aircraft designed by Burt Rutan, building on the foundation of the Long-EZ.
The first is the Rutan Voyager, which in 1986 – flown by Burt’s brother Dick, along with Jeana Yeager – became the first airplane to fly all the way around the world without stopping or refueling.
The second, hanging right next to Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis as you walk in the main hall, is Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 won the $10 million X Prize for launching the first privately-built, reuseable vehicle into space twice.
Building on his success winning the X Prize, Rutan teamed up with Richard Branson as the chief design engineer for Virgin Galactic, which promises to offer trips to space for paying tourists.
All of this builds on the innovative designs and materials first applied to Rutan’s kit planes, the VariEze and the Long-EZ, in the 1970s.
Because not only was the Long-EZ an incredibly agile plane, it also was an economically efficient one. It can travel 2,000 miles – the distance from Washington to Salt Lake City – on a single tank of gas. (Compared to just 750 miles for a Cessna 172).
Proving that innovation is alive and well in the USA.
Now the thing about the Long-EZ is, it can be tricky to land. It doesn’t slow very easily (you can only use the speed brake below 100) and the manual says you have to bring it down to around 70 knots on approach.
With a Cessna, you flare and let the plane settle onto the runway softly as it slows, holding back the yoke. You can’t do that with the Long-EZ. It will float and then suddenly, around 50 knots, just collapse onto its front gear, which is unpleasant.
The manual says, if in doubt, come in somewhat fast and plant it onto the runway. The problem is, the brakes (in MSFS) are really weak, so it takes a scary forever to come to a stop.
I mentioned that, as a kit plane, the Long-EZ could vary in cockpit design. This had fatal consequences for one experienced pilot: the musician John Denver.
Denver was an experienced pilot, with over 2,000 hours. But the fuel switch on the Long-EZ he had just bought – normally located on the floor between your legs, as it is here – was placed behind his chair, and was very difficult to turn.
Apparently, while trying to reach for it, he must have kicked the rudder and the plane crashed, killing him.
Burt Rutan always pushed the envelope, designing planes that adopted extremely innovative elements that sometimes worked – and sometimes didn’t. He’s always been among the first to admit this:
So the Rutan Long-EZ may look like a strange little plane, but it’s got an interesting history, and has had a lasting legacy. A real American story for July 4.