Airplanista Aviation Magazine Feature Story: Rutan’s Catbird coming to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh

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This aviation magazine article was originally published in the July, 2011 issue of Airplanista Magazine. You can view the original story in our digital aviation magazine here.

Catbird won the 1988 CAFE 400 race for airframe efficiency, fuel consumption, speed, and payload performance, and still holds two FAI world speed records.

By EAA Communications staff

If a cat has nine lives, maybe a Catbird has at least two. For the past 15 years or so, Scaled Composites Model 81 aircraft, better known as the Rutan Catbird, could be seen hanging - inverted - from the ceiling between Scaled’s offices and the flight center in Mojave, California. These days it’s back in the shop, being restored to airworthiness by volunteers so it can be flown to AirVenture Oshkosh this summer and take part in EAA’s Tribute to Burt Rutan on Thursday, July 28.

Catbird is a high-efficiency, all-composite, five-place, single-engine GA aircraft designed by Rutan when Scaled was owned by Beechcraft in the 1980s. Originally a potential replacement for the Bonanza, Catbird was one of the designs included when Scaled was sold back to Rutan and partner the Wyman-Gordon Company in 1988. Catbird replaced the Defiant I as Burt’s personal aircraft and itself was later replaced by Boomerang.

When Rutan announced plans to retire last year, Zach Reeder, project engineer at Scaled, recalls mentioning to him, “You know, we need to drag that airplane down,” pointing to the Catbird hanging from the rafters. “Burt’s response to me was, ‘You can get it down if you can get it to Oshkosh.’” That lit the spark, and this past January, after talking with some others about it, steps were taken to tackle the challenge. If everything goes as planned, the aircraft will make test flights in early July, and be all ready for the flight to Oshkosh.

Other volunteers working on the airplane include Jim Reed, an A&P mechanic with the spaceship company, and other folks from the Scaled and Mojave neighborhood. The volunteer group is sponsored by Burt and Tonya Rutan, Mike Melvill, Aircraft Spruce, Lycon, Airflow Performance, Hartzell Propeller, and Weldon. (Those wanting to contribute to the project can contact Jim Reed via e-mail.)

Catbird, which has appeared at two previous EAA conventions including its 1988 debut, is the first aircraft in which Rutan used forward-swept, all trimmable T-stabs. The same design was used on later aircraft including the first White Knight.

Scaled Composites Model 81 is a fairly low-time airplane, with a total of 340 flight hours. When Scaled employees threw Rutan a retirement party earlier this year, Catbird was on display, sitting on its gear with a borrowed prop from a Long-EZ.

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