Just as Paul MacCready dominated the movement in aviation design toward ultra-light human-powered aircraft, another man pioneered the movement toward canard designs—the legendary Burt Rutan.
Rutan runs a sort of “Skunk Works” for futuristic airplane designs out of his complex in the California desert. The original Skunk Works was a secretive Lockheed Aircraft factory that hired the best engineers and most rebellious thinkers in order to turn out, in the ’50s and ’60s, some airplanes that are still ahead of many companies’ best efforts.
The Lockheed Skunk Works designed planes such as the U-2 spy plane, which flew so high it was thought to be impossible to bring down, until the Russians did just that in 1960, downing Francis Gary Powers. Later, the Skunk Works turned out another spy plane, the sleek SR-71 Blackbird, which flew so high and so fast that it would turn scalding hot from air friction. Its super-aerodynamic shape still sets the standard for what a fast plane should look like. The Skunk Works is still operating in the California desert town of Palmdale.
Rutan is able to defy many of the rules of conventional airplane design because he doesn’t use conventional airplane materials. In place of metal, he prefers high-tech composite iam – inates, which are created by layering exotic fabrics one atop the other. These materials are strong and amazingly lightweight; and they can be formed to a designer’s specifications without regard for the structural limita- bons of metal.