Why the SkiGull is Important

Legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan retired from his company, Scaled Composites. What did he decide to do next? Design and build another airplane of course!

His latest creation, the SkiGull, flew for the first time on 24 November, 2015. A cynic might say that this airplane is a little strange-looking and will only serve a niche market. While those statements may be correct, I think the SkiGull is one of the most important/significant aircraft in development today. Here's why:

  • SkiGull is a true ATV

    Airplanes are wonderful vehicles for travel, but they aren't that versatile when it comes to landing. Most airplanes can't land on water and making a seaplane amphibious costs a lot in terms of money, complexity, speed, and weight. Skis have similar issues.

    I think Rutan is on to something with the idea that an airplane can be designed to handle numerous types of landing surfaces without having to compromise so much. If this idea catches on, it could make aircraft a lot more versatile for all of us.

  • The SkiGull isn't a niche-market product

    As far as I can tell, it isn't a "product" at all. I can only find records of Rutan saying that this is a personal aircraft that he plans to use for exploring the world. I hope he at least releases plans to the homebuilt community, if not a full kit. However, this design isn't about you and me.

    Any time a visionary can focus his or her work on just being excellent, the end result is always better than someone trying to make a product "marketable" or doing something for the shareholders. I don't know that Scaled Composites has ever been as susceptible to this as many companies, but Rutan is completely free to just make an awesome airplane. I suspect that's exactly what SkiGull will be.

  • It's not about the SkiGull

    Maybe SkiGull won't become the most popular piston single on Earth. Who cares? Rutan has dozens of designs to his credit. Not a single one is a best-seller, and many are one-of-a-kind. However, the ideas he's explored with those designs have revolutionized aviation time and time again.

    From the (formerly Lancair, formerly Columbia) Cessna C400 and the Cirrus SR22 to the B787, A350, and many other multi-million dollar airliners, aeronautical engineers are achieving impressive speeds and efficiencies through the use of composites. Rutan pioneered those design and building concepts decades ago with his VariViggen, VariEze, and Long-EZ.

    Those aircraft also pioneered the pairing of a swept rear with with a canard. Though that configuration is still in the process of being adopted by industry. However, the Beech Starship and Piaggio Avanti used them in the past and aircraft like the Cobalt Valkyrie are working on bringing the efficiencies of this design to the GA market at large now.

  • SkiGull highlights the broken aircraft certification process

    Bringing a brand-new aircraft design to market in the United States is embarrassingly difficult and expensive these days. Icon Aircraft was founded in 2004 to develop and produce a 2-seat, 100 hp LSA. It took over ten years and tens of millions of dollars to get the first production aircraft certified and delivered.

    Much of that delay was due to the requirements of 14 CFR Part 23 - the regulation that sets the requirements for certifying an aircraft. Part of the problem with that regulation is that it requires the same design and testing standards for a light GA aircraft as it does for an intercontinental airliner. It's just plain unnecessary. Congress and the President have instructed the FAA to fix this problem, but according to Flying, the FAA expects to blow its deadline by at least 2 years! (If you want to read more about the Part 23 overhaul, AIN has a good article.)

    If you look at the designs in the experimental aircraft market, you can get performance that matches or out-classes anything available in the certified aircraft market at the same price. The same goes for avionics. Some naysayers cite safety concerns with experimental aircraft. While there is some difference, a lot of the issues come from a lack of training or experience with building or flying. If we could make the design concepts from the experimental market available to the builders in the certified aircraft market we'd get better aircraft with the benefits of standardized construction and factory pilot training. It would be better for everyone.

    The performance that Rutan is shooting for with his SkiGull will again push the limits of what light aircraft are capable of doing. There's no chance that these innovations will make it into the certified aircraft market anytime soon...and we should be ashamed of that. I hope that SkiGull will serve as yet another stark reminder that Part 23 needs to be fixed now so that we can get brilliant innovation out from underneath the bureaucratic dead-weight holding it down.

  • SkiGull reminds us to keep learning

    If there is an authority in aircraft design, Rutan has to be it. He's probably designed more types of aircraft that most of us will ever fly. When big companies like Williams, Northrop, or the US Army need something that is beyond their capability they turn to Rutan. He built two different aircraft that flew nonstop and unrefueled around the world. Hell, the man built a space ship from scratch!

    Despite his unassailable credentials, reports of the SkiGull's first water taxi tests show that the plane didn't perform very well. I don't think Rutan has anything to worry about - if anyone can figure out how to fix these deficiencies it's him. I like examples like this, where even a true expert in a field finds that he or she still has things to learn. Seeing that it doesn't seem to have gotten him down tells me that I shouldn't worry too much about setbacks in my own work.

Whether it'll have a major impact on aviation in our world, or it's just another homebuilt, the SkiGull is an amazing aircraft. I'm looking forward to watching more of its development and testing. We at Aviation Bull wish Mr Rutan all the best with his little retirement project.

Scott and Sandy Guthrie of antennaFILMS are working on Looking Up, Way Up! The Burt Rutan Story, a film that details the SkiGull development process and tells more about Rutan's life. It's going to be a fun film and you can get updates via their fully-funded Kickstarter here.