by Dave Weiman
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine – April/May 2021 issue
Most spectators who have seen the late Robert A. “Bob” Hoover perform at airshows at Oshkosh and throughout North America, flying either his North American Rockwell Shrike Commander, Sabrelineror P-51 Mustang, would have never guessed that he was as modest as the guy next door, but he was. Those who had the pleasure of knowing him, knew this, and it was a characteristic emphasized by Mark Baker, President and CEO of the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA), during a virtual award program, February 3, 2021. The program, which was emceed by Baker and airshow announcer, Rob Reider, celebrated the 2020 award recipients because that event was postponed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The event was live streamed to members, and is available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijwhxOVET2o&ab_channel=AOPALive
The R.A. “Bob” Hoover Trophy is presented to an individual who fosters Bob Hoover’s legacy…an aviator who has shown the same passion for aviation, and the drive to share flying with others.
This year’s recipient is aerodynamicist, Burt Rutan, of Mojave, California.
Known as an aviation maverick, Elbert “Burt” Leander Rutan is the most innovative and productive aircraft designer of all time. With over 300 conceptualized vehicles, and over 30 of those designs built and tested, it’s easy to see why.
With an early interest in airplanes, Burt Rutan began building new aircraft configurations with parts from wrecked balsa wood kits. This fascination to investigate new ideas has continued throughout his career.
Graduating third in his class at California Polytechnic Institute in 1965 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Aeronautical Engineering, Rutan took a job at Edwards Air Force Base as a civilian flight test engineer. There he supported flight research for the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom, focusing on spin recovery tactics.
In 1972, Rutan moved to Kansas for two years to work with Jim Bede at Bede Aircraft Company to test the BD-5J. During the award program Rutan stated that he and Bede approached Bob Hoover at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, and had him demonstrate the jet at the events airshow. Hoover not only performed in the airshow, but also flew his P-51 Mustang overhead to supervise and assist race pilots in emergency situations.
Rutan left viewers in suspense regarding Hoover’s first flight in the jet, saying that the full story will be included in his memoirs, which will be available free for download to everyone at some future date.
After completing the BD5-J project, Rutan moved back to California to pursue development of his own aircraft.
The Rutan Aircraft Factory operated from 1974 to 1985 to sell plans for airplanes Rutan developed, and to support homebuilders. During those 11 years, Rutan developed 12 different aircraft, the most notable of which was the Long-EZ. Then in 1982, Rutan founded Scaled Composites as an aerospace research company allowing him to pursue his unrelenting thirst for discovery.
The success of Scaled Composites owes itself to Rutan’s philosophy that the best ideas come from the collaborative efforts of small, closely-knit project teams and an environment unlimited by adversity to risk.
As a result of Rutan and his team’s efforts, the aircraft “Voyager” was built and flew around the world nonstop by Rutan’s brother – test pilot and former U.S. Air Force combat pilot – Dick Rutan – and Jeana Yeager, December 14 – 23, 1986.
In 2004, Burt Rutan demonstrated the feasibility of a shape-changing airfoil for reentry with the sub-orbital “SpaceShipOne” flown by civilian astronaut, Michael Winston Melvill, and its launch aircraft, “White Knight One,” and later in 2011, “SpaceShipTwo” and “White Knight Two.” Both spaceships were designed to be reusable.
Rutan’s work on experimental aircraft brought generations of pilots into aviation. He designed 49 manned aircraft, 25 of which are in displays in museums around the world, including the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, and 17 of which are still flying.
Although Burt Rutan officially retired from Scaled Composites in 2011, his legacy continues in Mojave.
Because Rutan has been on the leading edge of aviation design and innovation for decades, one virtual award program viewer sought his opinion on the eVTOL designs circulating in the aviation industry. The roughly 150 eVTOL companies worldwide “are all doing it wrong,” Rutan quipped, adding that he has an idea that he believes will be “kind of cool.” If it gets built, Rutan said, it will be his fiftieth research airplane.
“While he was a very humble man, Bob Hoover radiated a remarkable spirit and overcame many obstacles in his life’s journey to become an inspiring and motivating, innovative pilot—not the least of which was surviving (and escaping) a POW camp during World War II,” Baker said. “It’s in this spirit for adventure, and for giving back to the aviation community, why this award and this evening exists.”
Rutan was honored with the highest honor of the evening, the R.A. “Bob” Hoover Trophy for exhibiting “the airmanship, leadership, and passion for aviation” that Hoover had, as well as for having a “distinguished career as a pilot and aviation advocate, while also serving as a source of inspiration and encouragement for current and prospective aviators.”
Burt Rutan became the fifth recipient of the award. The first trophy was presented to Hoover himself in 2016, and since then, the recipients have included airshow performer and EAA Young Eagles Cochairman Sean D. Tucker in 2017; actor, pilot and former EAA Young Eagles Chairman Harrison Ford in 2018; and Clay Lacy of Clay Lacy Aviation of Van Nuys, Calif. in 2019. All past recipients were on hand to salute Hoover and recognize Rutan for his accomplishments.
Brigadier General Charles E. McGee Aviation Inspiration Award
In addition to the Hoover Trophy, AOPA honored retired Tuskegee Airman, Brigadier General Charles E. McGee, who received the inaugural Brigadier General Charles E. McGee Aviation Inspiration Award.
As a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, McGee fought two wars at once during World War II, one against fascism in Europe and the other against racism in the United States. McGee, now 101, persevered to make the world a better place, and he encourages others to do the same. In a pre-recorded message, he encouraged young people to follow four Ps: perceive, prepare with a good education, perform to the best of their ability, and persevere despite their circumstances.
“His 138 combat missions are just one part of General McGee’s story,” Baker said. “He has been a trailblazer for generations of aviators. He has enabled thousands of enthusiasts to follow their dreams, who might not have had a chance to climb into the cockpit.”
Baker also presented the Charles E. McGee Aviation Inspiration Award to another military aviator and aviation leader, Kenyatta Ruffin, a U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot and the commander of the 71st Operations Support Squadron. Ruffin soloed a glider at age 14; became a flight instructor; founded a flight school; helped found a STEM summer camp; and founded Legacy Flight Academy, which works to preserve and grow the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen and gives young people a first flight in a GA aircraft.
General Aviation Safety Award
“Safety is our DNA here at AOPA,” Baker said, introducing AOPA Air Safety Institute Senior Vice President and former U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Leader, Richard McSpadden, who presented the 2020 General Aviation Safety Award to Boris Popov, founder of BRS Aerospace, and the inventor of the ballistic emergency parachute used in many civilian aircraft today.
Popov designed the whole-airframe parachute concept after he survived a hang-gliding accident. Popov was hang gliding behind a boat when a miscommunication caused the boater to speed up instead of slow down, making the hang glider pitch up dramatically. Popov fell 500 feet and hit the water, knocking the fillings out of his teeth. He decided then to develop a parachute safety device to help prevent similar accidents. The concept expanded and was approved for ultralights and experimental aircraft. Later, it was approved for installation on certified aircraft, and now more than 30,000 GA aircraft are equipped with BRS parachutes. Cirrus was the first manufacturer to install the parachute as standard equipment on its aircraft.
Popov said the award was “a precious tribute” to everyone who worked diligently to help develop the parachute. More than 438 lives have been saved to date, Popov said, asking viewers to imagine what this has meant to the families and businesses whose loved ones and employees were saved, as well as the benefit to GA through fewer fatal accidents.