Burt Rutans Homebuilt Canards

The Rutan Vari EZ was developed from the Variviggen and pioneered the use of mold less fiberglass construction.

By:       Norm Goyer

Rutan started working on his first canard design while still a student at Cal Poly in the early 1960s. It was named after the Swedish SAAB 37 Viggen which had given him some ideas. The aircraft is a two-seat (tandem arrangement), wood and fiberglass canard utilizing a 150 hp Lycoming O-320 piston engine in pusher configuration. Rutan became interested because he had been looking for an aircraft which resisted spins and stalls. The VariViggen was his first full scale design. After four years of work, the aircraft made its first flight in April, 1972. He then revised the prototype. The new VariViggen, utilized a slightly longer fuselage, larger span and winglets in order to increase efficiency. Rutan eventually sold over 600 sets of plans for the VariViggen to homebuilders. Twenty were completed and only a handful are still flying. A VariViggen was used in the 1975 movie Death Race 2000.

Burt Rutan’s VariViggen was the first of Rutan’s small canard homebuilt designs.

Next Rutan introduced his first real success, the Vari EZ, which featured an all fiberglass construction with a no-mold required building technique. Homebuilders flocked to the design. The Vari EZ is a medium high-performance homebuilt, hundreds of which have been constructed. The Vari EZ is notable for popularizing the canard configuration and moldless composite construction for homebuilt aircraft. The prototype used a Volkswagen engine conversion. Three months later it was shown at Oshkosh where Dick Rutan piloted it to an under 500 kg class distance record of 1,638 miles. (Dick later became the pilot of the round the world Voyager) Burt believed that by engaging in a program of breaking class records he could further fine-tune the design

The most popular Rutan homebuilt canard was the Long EZ. This aircraft, along with the Vari EZ dominated the homebuilt scene in from 1975 to 1985, hundreds were built and flown.

The prototype Vari EZ was so popular at Oshkosh Rutan redesigned the aircraft so the design could be sold as a set of plans. A second prototype,  N4EZ, built using a larger wing, a Continental O-200 engine, and many other detail changes, was shown at Oshkosh in 1976 and plans were offered for sale in July 1976. Approximately 2000 aircraft were under construction by 1980, with about 300 flying by late 1980. Ultimately more Vari EZes and Long Ezes were constructed than any other homebuilt type of the time. The sale of plans ceased in 1985.

The most advanced homebuilt canard design is the Velocity, developed along the lines of the Long EZ with major improvements. It is available with four seats and retractable landing gear. I have flown this aircraft and it is a good one, if you like canards.

It is interesting to note, that the design’s stall resistance did not appear to translate to a lower accident rate than for other homebuilts; the designs were involved in 130 total accidents and 46 fatal accidents out of a fleet of about 800. Other variations were a retractable front landing gear used for parking. This was needed as the plane would tilt back onto the its tail without a pilot in the aircraft. The retracted nose gear did also lessen the drag during cruise.

Rutan’s next design was the even more popular Long EZ. Changes from the Vari EZ included a larger main wing with a modified Eppler 1230 airfoil and less sweep back. It also could use a Lycoming 108 hp engine without additional nose ballast. Plans were sold from 1980 to 1985. As of late 2005, approximately 700 Long EZ’s are FAA registered in the USA. Each year the  number of Vari EZ and Long EZ designs diminishes at major air shows.

The following facts were compiled from the NTSB accident report. “Popular singer John Denver died while flying a Long EZ on October 12, 1997. The NTSB believes that he inadvertently pushed on his right rudder pedal while twisting to the left in his seat as he struggled to operate the fuel selector valve. Contributing factors in the crash were other pilot errors, a design that led to an overly optimistic pre-flight fuel-check estimate, a known defective (very hard to turn) fuel valve, and non-standard placement of the fuel selector valve by the kit plane’s builder, at variance with Burt Rutan’s specs. The NTSB cited Denver’s unfamiliarity with the aircraft and his failure to have the aircraft refueled as causal factors in the accident. The aerodynamics of this unusual aircraft did not play a role in Denver’s crash.”

This crash received a huge amount of international publicity which did nothing for the Long EZ design and homebuilt aircraft in general.


  • Fuel capacity: 50 U.S. gal
  • Typical empty weight: 760 lb
  • Cruise speed: 160 kt (184 mph) at 5.1 U.S. gal/h
  • Range (at cruise speed): 1,200 nautical miles 1,400 miles
  • Max. Speed (level flight): 185 kt 210 mph,
  • Dimensions
  • Wing Span/Area: 26.1 ft,  81.99 sq ft
  • Canard Span/Area: 11.8 ft,  12.8 sq ft
  • Total Wing Area: 94.8 sq ft
  • Length: 201.4 in
  • Height: 94.5 in
  • Cockpit Width: 23 in

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