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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS Feed Catbird returns to Oshkosh

By JAMES WYNBRANDT
Catbird
The record-setting Catbird, on display with other Burt Rutan designs.
Burt Rutan
Zach Reeder and Burt Rutan talk about the restoration of Catbird. PHOTO BY STEVE SCHAPIRO

After 15 years, once again a pilot is sitting in the Catbird’s seat.

This pressurized, single-engine, five-place aircraft designed by Burt Rutan almost replaced the venerable Bonanza after Beechcraft purchased Scaled Composites, Rutan’s Mojave, California-based skunk works, in the mid-1980s.

“I was trying to design a conventional airplane,” Rutan explains. “[Beech CEO] Jim Walsh was very interested in a Bonanza replacement. I showed him what we were doing with the Catbird, and he said, ‘Why don’t we finish it, and we’ll adapt it [as the Bonanza’s replacement.]”

But after paying to finish the prototype, Beech sold Scaled Composites back to Rutan and his partner of the time, the Wyman-Gordon Co. in 1986, and included the rights to the Catbird and other Rutan designs for an additional dollar.

Rutan used the Catbird as his personal aircraft (replacing the Defiant). Designed to be fast and efficient, it won the 1988 California CAFE 400 race for overall airframe efficiency, speed, fuel consumption and payload, and it still holds two Federation Aeronautique Internationale world speed records, averaging better than 250 mph.

Rutan retired the Catbird when he stepped up to his later design, the asymmetrical twin-engine Boomerang, and in the mid-’90s Mike Melvill hung Catbird—inverted—from the rafters of one of Scaled’s buildings.

Fast-forward to late last year, when Rutan was removing items from Scaled as he prepared for retirement. Walking beneath the Catbird with Zach Reeder, a Scaled project engineer, Reeder said, “You know, we need to drag that airplane down.”

As Reeder recalls, “Burt’s response to me was, ‘You can get it down if you can get it to Oshkosh.’”

In January, Reeder decided to take Rutan up on his challenge.

“The airframe was in great condition,” Reeder says. But it was hardly flyable. Its engine and nosewheel were stripped for use in the Boomerang, and its panel had been removed. Various parts of the Catbird were scattered about the facility.

Recruiting a team of volunteers, Reeder began restoring the aircraft to airworthy condition. He also enlisted Melvill, who had made the first flight in the Catbird as well as the maiden flights in nine other Rutan designs, including SpaceShipOne.

“He has provided many parts from his own hangar, including a Beech 76 Duchess nose gear,” which Melvill modified to fit in the Catbird’s wheel well, Reeder says. Rutan also helped, providing a TIO-360 engine, the same model powerplant used in the original Catbird. To construct a panel, Reeder installed a panel-mounted Garmin 696 portable GPS as the primary navigation instrument.

The Catbird flew again for the first time on July 7 and has now retraced the flight to Oshkosh it first made in 1988.

Among the Catbird’s design innovations: It is the first Rutan aircraft to incorporate forward swept all trimmable T-stabs, later used on aircraft including the WhiteKnight, mother ship for SpaceShipOne.

Catbird will be parked on ConocoPhillips Plaza all week.

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