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Mike Melvill’s Early Days with Burt Rutan

Mike Melvill

On 21 June 2004, Mike Melvill piloted SpaceShipOne past the edge of space, becoming the first commercial astronaut in aviation history. But Melvill is nothing like the 433 individuals that preceded him into space. As Dave Hirschman described him in the June 2013 issue of AOPA Magazine:

“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.”

[Photo: BurtRutan.com]
Sir Richard Branson (L) and Burt Rutan

Melvill’s unlikely career in aviation is inextricably linked with that of Burt Rutan. Melville and his wife Sally became Rutan’s first employees when they moved out to California in 1974 to join Rutan in his business. The first aircraft that Rutan designed was 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 graduated third in his class in 1965 with a degree in aeronautical engineering and soon landed work at Edwards AFB as a civilian flight engineer.

Living in Lancaster while 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. Rutan mounted 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 in 1972, he left California 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. 

[Photo: Daniel and Robert Fall]

It was in 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 who worked for a tool and die company in Indiana specializing in industrial box cutting machines. Traveling to meet customers, Melvill figured if he learned to fly, his business travel would be much more enjoyable than 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 two-thirds finished before he sold it off and picked up another Cougar which was 90 per cent complete. Melvill flew the second Cougar for four years before he met Rutan at Oshkosh. 

“I need her worse than I need you!”

Burt Rutan

Melville liked the VariViggen design because 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. It took Melvill “three years, one month, twenty-two days” to finish his VariViggen. 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 Rutan was a regular visitor to observe the construction progress.

One day, when Rutan was visiting, he discovered that Melvill’s wife Sally was a bookkeeper (and a pilot in her own right) 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 Sally’s accounting skills than Melvill’s piloting and machinist skills. He’s reported to have said “I need her worse than I need you!”

In addition to being his first employees, the Melvills were two of the ten original owners of Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites.

Melvill still has his VariViggen with 4,200 hours on the airframe. He went on to become Rutan’s main test pilot and the general manager of his company, where Sally was the head of human resources. As Rutan’s main test pilot, Melvill was often the pragmatist counterpart to Rutan’s dreams, and he and Rutan talked with several times a day about Rutan’s ideas.

Most of the time, Melvill would be first person to know what new ideas Rutan was contemplating: “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.”

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