22 January 2015

Mike Melvill's Early Days with Burt Rutan

Mike Melvill in the cockpit of SpaceShipOne
On 21 June 2004, Mike Melvill piloted SpaceShipOne past the edge of space, becoming the first commercial astronaut in aviation history. Melville and his wife, Sally, were Burt Rutan's very first employees when they moved out to California in 1974 to join Rutan in his business. But Melvill is nothing like the 433 individuals that preceded him into space. I think Dave Hirschman's article for the June 2013 issue of AOPA Magazine "The Unlikeliest Astronaut" put it best in the following paragraph: 

Unlikeliest astronaut. Mike Melvill doesn't fit the typical military-trained, academically overachieving astronaut profile. The South African native failed a math course and never finished high school. He raced motorcycles and became a machinist at 17. He married his childhood sweetheart, Sally, and they emigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. He became a U.S. citizen in 1972, and his motivation to fly was a dislike of airline travel—not a dream of exploration.

To understand how Mike Melvill's unlikely career in aviation is inextricably linked with that of Burt Rutan, we have to step back a bit and take a look at Burt Rutan's first aircraft design, a homebuilt piston pusher he called the VariViggen. Rutan began the design work on the VariViggen in 1963 while he was still an undergraduate at California Polytechnic State University. He would graduate in 1965 third in his class with a degree in aeronautical engineering and soon landed work at Edwards AFB as a civilian flight engineer. Living in Lancaster at the time he was working at Edwards, Rutan began construction of the VariViggen in his garage in 1968 after five years of doing his own model experiments with subscale models and wind tunnel testing that basically was Rutan mounting design iterations of the VariViggen to a test rig he built that could be clamped to the luggage rack of his station wagon. Using his day job experience as a flight test engineer, he was able to use these tests to refine the VariViggen's configuration before starting assembly. Around the time he was ready to start taxi testing the VariViggen, he left California in 1972 and took a job with Jim Bede's aircraft company in Newton, Kansas, as the director of development for the BD-5 homebuilt aircraft. In his spare time, he prepared the VariViggen for its taxi and flight tests with the help of some of Bede's engineers and employees. He made the VariViggen's first flight in April that year and embarked on a nine-week flight test program before flying the aircraft to the 1972 Oshkosh Air Show, demonstrating the aircraft to the experimental homebuilt aircraft community and selling the blueprints for pilots to build their own VariViggen. He returned to California in 1974 and formed the Rutan Aircraft Company. 

The Rutan VariViggen
It was there at Oskhosh in 1972 that Mike Melvill met Burt Rutan and purchased a set of blue prints for the VariViggen. Melvill was a machinist with a gift for tinkering working for a tool and die company in Indiana that specialized in industrial box cutting machines. Traveling all over to customers, Melvill figured if he learned to fly, traveling for business would be much more enjoyable than just a series of tedious waits in airport terminals across the country. He began working on his own Nesmith Cougar aircraft (a high wing homebuilt design from the 1950s) which was 2/3 finished before he sold it off and picked up another Cougar which was 90% completed. That second Cougar was the one Melvill was flying for four years before he met Rutan at Oshkosh. 

Melville liked the VariViggen design as it accommodated two people and three suitcases easily. With his wife's support, they bought a new house in Indiana that had the room for Mike to build his own VariViggen. Melvill can tell you exactly how much time it took him to finish his VariViggen- "Three years, one month, twenty-two days". He had followed Rutan's blueprints exactly until he got to the landing gear retraction mechanisms. Melvill didn't like the design and with a tool and machinist background, redesigned the system to his liking, fabricating his own parts at work. Melvill's VariViggen was the first one built aside from Rutan's and that made Rutan a regular visitor to see the construction progress. One day, when Rutan was visiting, he found out Melvill's wife was a bookkeeper (and a pilot in her own right as well) and that she worked at the same company as her husband. Rutan offered both of them the opportunity to come to California and work for him. The story goes that Rutan was more in need of his wife's accounting skills than Melvill's piloting and machinist skills:

"I need her worse than I need you!"

Melvill and his wife are one of the ten original owners of Rutan's company, Scaled Composites and his first employees as well. Melvill still has his VariViggen with 4,200 hours on the airframe. He would go on to become Rutan's main test pilot and the general manager of his company with his wife as the head of human resources. Being Rutan's main test pilot, Melvill was the pragmatist counterpart to Rutan's dreams and often Rutan talked with Melvill several times a day about his ideas. Most of the time Melvill would be first person to know what new ideas Rutan was contemplating. From the same AOPA article: 

“He came into my office almost every morning,” Melvill said. “He would say something like, ‘I think we’ve developed the technical expertise to build a twin, or a jet.’ But I’ll never forget the day he said he thought we had the technical expertise to fly an aircraft into space. It was something I’d never considered. We were doing a credible job with airplanes that flew about 200 miles an hour—but to get to space, we’d have to fly at Mach 3. It seemed too ambitious to seriously contemplate, and I was intimidated.”

Source: The Complete Guide to Rutan Aircraft, Third Edition by Don & Julia Downie.TAB Books, 1987, pp35-48. "The Unlikeliest Astronaut" by Dave Hirschman, AOPA News and Video, 1 June 2013. Photos: Wikipedia, EAA.


  1. That is an amazing bit of history there. You know, what really strikes me about astronauts is how they all start up as a kind of pilots that we know, flying the planes that we have already grown to understand, as a tangible reality. Spaceflight is still embedded in grand fictions and superlative dreams of fancy, that it's important to have stuff like that to make us step into the truth more easily, while seeing how important pilots are, as much as the conventional planes. Thanks for sharing that!

    Raymond Curry @ Holstein Aviation

    1. Raymond, thanks for the comments. Growing up an aviation geek, many of those I idolized were test pilots and astronauts, especially after I read Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" before the movie was released. The wonderful thing about Mike Melvill is that as an astronaut, he has a background that is more "us" than the super achievers that most astronauts are.