|The Boomerang arrived Saturday at AirVenture after being resurrected by Scaled Composites engineer Tres Clements.
PHOTO BY TYSON V. RININGER
VariEze. Starship. Voyager. SpaceShipOne…the names of Burt Rutan’s revolutionary aircraft are legion.
Ask Rutan himself which he regards among his most important designs, and you’ll quickly hear the name: “Boomerang,” a seemingly unflyable asymmetric twin-engine airplane he built in 1996.
“It’s head and shoulders over anything in its class for performance,” Rutan said.
As for its aerodynamic characteristics: “I wanted the absolute ultimate in safe flying qualities.”
Tres Clements, a 28-year-old engineer at Scaled Composites, the Mojave-based skunk works Rutan founded and from which he retired earlier this year, can attest to those qualities. He flew the Boomerang from Mojave to Wittman Field for AirVenture 2011’s Tribute to Rutan, after leading the volunteer team that brought the airplane back to flying condition after nine years of gathering dust.
“It handles as great as can be,” Clements said yesterday, standing beside the Boomerang on ConocoPhillips Plaza, where the aircraft will be on display this week. “There’s no adverse yaw; it’s extremely well balanced.”
The symmetry of asymmetry
It was hard to square Clements’ words with the airplane because everything about it looks odd.
The right wing spans nearly 5 feet less than the left.
One engine is on the nose of the fuselage; the second is at the front of a single boom on the left side of the aircraft set 5 feet farther back.
And the pilot sits in the right seat.
But as Clements found, appearances can be deceiving.
“Your first impression from an engineering standpoint is trying to understand why he did something the way he did—like one landing gear swings forward for retraction, and one swings back. But if you try to change something, you discover there are five other things that get messed up, and you quickly see it’s really well thought out, all the way through.”
A Boomerang comes back
The story of the Boomerang’s resurrection begins just a few months ago as Rutan was preparing for retirement and clearing his things out of storage at Scaled Composites.
A decade ago Rutan had been using the four-place-plus-child Boomerang for personal transportation. In addition to aerodynamic stability, he wanted an ultra efficient plane he could fly across the Pacific—to Hawaii, to Australia, and beyond.
With only three 57-gallon fuel tanks.
But before he could set off on his adventures, Rutan stopped piloting aircraft due to medical issues, and the aircraft hadn’t flown in the nine years since he parked it.
“He didn’t want to see it in museum,” Clements said. “He thought people might think there’s something wrong with the design, and he wanted to see it back in the air.”
Clements volunteered for the assignment.
“We pulled it out of the hangar covered in dust, we did a lot of inspections, a lot of cleanups, and got the engines running,” Clements said. “Burt was really excited.
“Anytime a question about a system came up, it was invaluable to have Burt explain it.”
Clements and his volunteer team got the airplane flying in time for Scaled’s April 1 retirement ceremony for Rutan.
But a lot more work was needed to ready the Boomerang for long cross-country flights. While the Boomerang is aerodynamically pure, its systems are complex and panel space is limited.
Updating a classic
Rutan used a Macbook in a docking station to act as the instrument panel.
Clements and his team replaced the Macbook with a Garmin digital panel with a GMA 350 audio panel and GTN 750 touch screens.
To retain the flavor of the original panel, an iPad docking station was added.
Clements estimated the group spent at least 1,500 to 2,000 hours on the restoration by the time he launched for AirVenture from Mojave Saturday morning carrying Ryan Malherbe, a General Atomics employee, and Bob Morgan, a Scaled employee, who were also instrumental in the restoration. They cruised at altitudes of 15,500 and 17,500 feet at 47 percent power on the Lycoming TIO-360 engines, burning about 16 gallons per hour total—yielding true airspeeds from 200 to 230 knots.
“It was really cool to work with Burt,” Clements said, reflecting on his journey of the last few months. “Burt was an idol of mine, and he turned out to be really an awesome guy, and very human.”
In fact, Clements said one of his most valuable lessons was that underpinning Rutan’s genius for innovations was one simple characteristic: motivation.
“It’s a rough thing to fathom, to sit down and say, ‘We’re going to build a spaceship today.’ But it’s just the motivation to make things happen. You’re really your own worst enemy when it comes to that. Just go and do it.”