Mojave - Last Saturday’s Plane Crazy event at the Mojave Air and Space Port was one for the books and certainly well worth the time for any and all who did attend a very special Christmas edition of the monthly aviation event.
None other than Jill Rutan Hoffman, the twice published aviation author, Mojave native, and daughter of World Record setting aviation legend Dick Rutan stopped by MASP to speak on her recollections of growing up in one of the most famous families in America.
Watching the growth of the legendary duo of Dick and brother Burt Rutan as they custom built or “Homebuilt” as Jill put it, their own aviation kingdom, setting record after record along the way, including the round the world non-stop-unrefueled flight of the Voyager in 1986, and the backstory on that which most have never heard.
Jill told of her childhood growing up here in Mojave while her Dad was off setting records above, and recalling how windy it gets here in the desert, finding solace in the family bathtub when it got especially strong. She spoke of not realizing that her family was different in any way while growing up though not too many kids today can boast of custom aircraft being built in the garage and then flown high over the desert in death-defying self-experimentation and design.
She said she finally realized when someone referred to “The Nut-jobs” down the way building an airplane in their garage that brought it home. As she grew, watching her dad and Uncle smash records it all became routine living among a family of American Heroes known for steel nerves, courage, and sheer brilliance that still to this day are pushing the envelope of aviation with Uncle Burt being the founder of Scaled composites, and co-founder of The Spaceship Company.
When she spoke of her memories of the Voyager flight she was old enough by then to understand the levity of what her dad was doing, telling of the tense days leading up to the launch of the still untested aircraft for the challenge they were about to undertake in it.
For three days Air Force personnel knocked on the door only to tell her dad the weather was bad and “No flight”, then Dick himself fell ill on the fourth day only to have the fifth be perfect and the flight day Dec. 18th at 8:01 a.m. the Voyager taxied out onto the tarmac and then the runway. This was a custom plane Dick and brother Burt built by selling posters of the craft for $10 dollars each, swearing off corporate sponsorship in lieu of self-achievement seeking out donations to build it “Hat in Hand” as Jill put it. As dad rolled the Voyager to the runway Jill was standing right there alongside to wave to her Dad as he took off.
Little did people know that inside that craft, Dick Rutan was certain that the craft would not get off the ground and that he would not make it past the end of the runway. With young daughter Jill waving to him, immediately things went wrong on the historic flight when the wing tips started scraping the ground as the airplane began down the runway.
Jill stated during the speech that she very nearly saw a horrific sight right then and there without realizing it, while back inside the Voyager, Dick Rutan and Co-Pilot Jeana Yeager steadied the plane and managed to get it off the ground.
It then become a 9 day endurance test that saw engine failure, terrible bouts with weather, sleep deprivation, no toilets, and the uncertainty of the nascent craft itself all to contend with. When the duo did finally get back to Edwards, Dick was so tired he couldn’t recall if he had asked for clearance when leaving, bringing the room to laughter.
Upon landing Jill said her dad asked why there were so many people there that day and “Did the Shuttle land?” not realizing that it was all for he and Jeana and Burt’s legendary Voyager plane which now hangs in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. “He’s a Hero” she said matter of factly and with no exaggeration.
She said that on one visit while her Dad was looking up at the Voyager in the Smithsonian he said to her “They can take anything they want from me, but they can never take away the fact that I built (and flew) that plane.”
Golden Arms test pilot, world record setting living aviation legend, American Hero, and still “Dad”. Jill has founded ‘Looking Skywayd’ which is an organization that connects STEM classrooms to aerospace careers. Her books “First Flights” and “Oshkosh Memories” as well as her own daughter Noelle’s books are available online at jillrutanhoffman.com. Meanwhile all day her father Dick was wowing the crowd with gift rides to the lucky few and roaring over the airport in his personal Rutan-Ez plane replete with Golden Eagle paint job.