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May 2024 – Hero of the Month: Dick Rutan

In May 2019, I was asked to MC the Annual Meeting of the Coachella Valley Bar Association at the Palm Springs Air Museum.

When I arrived, I discovered that I would be sitting with Dick and Kris Rutan. I had met Dick and his brother Burt before but never had the opportunity to speak with Dick at length.

The meeting was held in the Vietnam War hanger. When I got up to start the festivities, I drew attention to the POW Wall of Honor behind me which had each of our POW’s photographs arranged in order of their being shot down and a display case that people had donated bracelets that they wore for them during their captivity. I also went off script to introduce Dick Rutan because, as I explained, we had amongst us that evening a true American hero. I was standing at the podium next to a North American F-100D, similar to the one Dick had flown in Vietnam. 242 F-100s were lost in action providing close air support for our ground troops. Within that fleet of Air Force planes was a special group of elite pilots known as “The Mistys” who operated as a forward air control squadron that helped identify where help was needed and exposed themselves to immense risk in doing so. Dick Rutan was one of the most famous of the distinguished. His service in Vietnam included  325 missions and awards included 5 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 16 Air Medals, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.

On May 3, 2024, Dick passed away from the effects of Long Covid in a VA Hospital near his home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho with Burt and Kris at his bedside.

The Rutan brothers grew up in tiny Loma Linda, CA and are undoubtedly one of the three most famous brothers in aviation history along with Orville and Wilbur Wright, Linden and Neal Blue. When they were reunited after Dick left the Air Force in 1978, they began working together on civilian aviation prototypes. Burt designed them and Dick flew them. The most famous was the “Rutan Voyager.” In December 1986, Dick with co-pilot Jeana Yeager flew the Voyager on the first-ever non-stop and unrefueled flight around the world. The flight took 9 days and attracted worldwide attention. For their remarkable effort, they were awarded the Collier Trophy and President Reagan presented them with the Presidential Citizens Medal at a White House ceremony.

What many forget about that flight was near the end, over Mexico and on the final leg home to Edwards Air Force base, suffering from extreme exhaustion from their long days spent in a noisy and very cramped cockpit,  they had fuel pump problems and the front engine lost power. As a result, they were losing altitude at an alarming rate while addressing the problems and finally stabilized the plane at 3,500 feet. Given the unique design of the aircraft, it was remarkable that they did not spin into the ocean. 

I am blessed to have an autographed model copy of the Voyager and the book written about the trip signed by both Dick and Burt and will cherish them both forever. The Voyager now hangs with honor in the South Lobby of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

In my condolence letter to Burt, I echoed the sentiments of many when I said I wished that Dick could have had one final reprieve: perhaps a parade on a beautiful warm Idaho day in Coeur d’Alene where we could all have given him one last ovation for his many achievements. He was a true American hero.

I would also be remiss in closing without paying tribute to his brother Burt. Burt received a degree in Aerospace Engineering from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and pioneered the use of composites in aircraft manufacturing and canard configurations, most notably as the founder of Scaled Composites LLC, now a subsidiary of NorthrupGrumman. In addition to the famous Voyager, Burt designed 46 airplanes (including 4 others displayed at the Smithsonian). Among those most famous were the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer for Sir Richard Branson and SpaceShipOne for Microsoft founder Paul Allen. Each set records. Burt has so many honorary degrees and awards, it would be best to just review the list at Wikipedia.

Suggested reading for those interested:  Misty by Major General Don Shepperd (First Book, 2002) and Voyager by Rutan and Yeager (Knopf, 1987)

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