Still the One

I rosily remember the first flights of my VariEze as surging and almost violent escapes from the sluggish earth with the airplane hunched up and powerfully romping through the air. That can’t be accurate because I also remember the smooth lithe rippling grace of the plane sloughing off and fast outrunning my previous flying encumbrances.

Ten years now. It first flew in September of 1996. So fifteen years of building and flying. But wait. The plans arrived fifteen years before that. Thirty years.

Starting to build in 1991 included a step back for an objective look at the other 700+ homebuilt options out there. Nothing was close. From my perch the VariEze led the pack. And now years later, it’s still the one. That would seem crazy, now with even more options out there, especially considering the VariEze’s significant weight and space limitations. But building, and then worse, going airborne in any airplane you built yourself is already pretty deep into some abnormal classification.

One of my shirts has a favorite EZ photo on back, a nose shot of the diminutive 399 lb N7EZ. I think Dick Rutan is in the pilot seat, talking to Burt standing next to the plane. The plane comes up to about Burt’s waist.

The other favorite is a faded CP photo still hanging in the garage. The caption says, Burt Rutan Taxis out for his last flight in his favorite plane – N4EZ. His words on landing, “Best airplane this company ever built!!”

Today the LongEZ is a more practical airplane. Done well, they can almost match the efficiency of the VariEze. And over the years there are certainly plenty of newer, more dazzling and impressive planes. But getting ready for the trip to Rough River I again appreciate the simple and enjoyable operational qualities of the VariEze.

A good compromise
I feel pretty good about where the plane is today. The basic structure is totally per plans with well-intended defensive weight control. It has fairly minimal gadgetry, and some personal touches slanted toward operationally friendliness. I objectively regret about 30 lbs, but wouldn’t know where to slice. Like most builders, I stayed right on target on airframe weight, and then wanted the plane to have or do too much. The few little extra goodies put it well past the 620 lb design empty weight.

Design weight - 520 lbs. That’s the rub. And the challenge none of us have met. That was the hatchling VariEze’s initial designed fighting weight in the January 1977 CP back-page spec sheet brochure. Later after ailerons and such the CP lists a desired max empty weight of 575, then finally a maximum-maximum of 620 lbs. Any prospective buyer would have this 620 lb number emblazoned on his smart-shopper checklist. That was RAF’s (Rutan Aircraft Company) final max no BS empty weight of the design. Using Long-EZ gear helps, but doesn’t change RAFs warning that Burt used the 1050 lb gross weight was used over a thousand times in designing the VariEze.

Low weight is a key ingredient of the design’s almost unbelievable flight characteristics. But that also makes it painfully sensitive to any extras. Struggling for both the frugality and the functionality, you feel like the guy with one bare foot on a block of ice and the other in a camp fire – on average he should be comfortable, but definitely notices the extremes.

So many airplanes, so little time
Back then, looking toward building and flying the VariEze, and concerned about its well stated weight limits, I filed back through my mostly 1970s field of comparison. It included the hulking Marine helo that could do and carry almost anything; an airborne city block of parts vibrating fiercely along together in fairly tight formation.
For something really different, my waddling Cessna 120 taildragger was cute, and with a little headwind it could almost hover, or even fly backwards. Tie down for the $2800, 85 hp C-120 was $7.50 a month. A gallon of gas was… never mind.

What price pizzazz? Along that C-120 time, some of us went to see a college-buddy/doctor’s new spiffy Bonanza. He was in a partnership deep dive with several of his physician phriends. The Bonanza’s phine lines and paint job reminded me of the sleek Jet Ranger helo, the charms and demands of which I had just walked away from.

Sitting on the ramp he lit up the colorful radar and stormscope. I was feeling lackluster as he flicked through the switches. I flew the simple Cessna 120 often going to see my folks and making leisurely low level ranch runs. It matched my flying needs almost perfectly. But sitting in the Bonanza back seat I was beginning to feel outdistanced. I leaned up and asked “So how much flight time do you have in it so far?”
He said “Oh… I haven’t flown it. But isn’t this panel great!”
Something about insurance. Insurance…?

At my first KC GIG a gentleman opened a little more of this new EZ world, talking of using his twin to take his wife back home somewhere on the west coast and then returning in his LongEZ to continue on the next leg of his journey; and how much he preferred the long lean legs and freedom of the EZ.

Another extreme, at one fly-in about a dozen planes headed out for lunch and I gladly accepted the offer to jump in the back of someone’s 00-360 Long-EZ. The flight was a parody. As we climbed to 8000 ft I enjoyed gazing out at the other dozen planes slowly dancing around us. In front he was caught up tweaking his high tech headset, fighting frequencies, wrestling with the Loran and orchestrating with oxygen and wiggling the wing leveler and fingering fuel flow and encrypting engine data capture, then more oxygen then radar and I don’t know what all. It was like an octopus fell in his lap. I don’t think he ever looked outside.
Somehow we arrived over the lunch airport without getting hypoxic or lost, still in the middle of the gaggle. Later, airborne in my plane listening to the engine was a breath of fresh air. At that time that’s all there was to my plane – the airframe and the engine!

Starting out building, I was planning on the 75 hp, 175 lb engine. But everywhere I looked I saw bigger engines. Later I noticed how extravagant furnishings were actually creating problems for some planes. Look Out. But all you had to do was fly in any EZ. It would ruin you and you could never feel the same about spam cans.

The Point
Early on, right after the 520 lb N4EZ began flying, better brakes and landing gear and stuff were incorporated. Reading through the list of rework in the CPs, it looks to me like they were trying to somehow figure out how to get the builder’s heavier and heavier planes to still have reasonable landing numbers. Why? Because we geniuses were changing and screwing up the mission of Burt’s Beautimus Bargain, turning a spartan sports car into our sedan. Certainly there were significant basic improvements. But how much of that rework would have to been done on a 520 lb plane?

Did you notice that top speeds aren’t listed in the CP brochures? That’s the first thing we want to know. But no.
So what did RAF do to showcase their good work? Basically they set records in the VariEze and flew a Long-EZ from Alaska to the Bahamas or something, 4400 miles! The way I remember it, the focus was on high speed efficient cross country cruise. Vne was almost an irrelative afterthought, of no concern, because who would be silly enough to fly at the redline? Or in the yellow. Everyone would be flying at the airframe’s best speed, right?

Not so far. What we recognize and reward is raw speed. And glitzy gizmos and a maxed out paint job. Because it’s sexy, and easy to measure. But living the EZ dream is much more - flying to the horizon – to the far corners, and often back in our own bed that night. With rare but required exceptions, we are not flying at top end. The smart guys think Best L/D. That’s where we live. That’s what the first VariEze was designed and built to do.

Best L/D is almost ignored. I bet most of us are going to have to brush up on what the heck it is. We probably don’t know our particular airplane’s most efficient/lowest drag speed! Or know how to determine it.

I bet most of us just assume that the fastest plane is the most efficient. Is it? And with bigger engines, what are we loosing?

The recent induction work on my plane was aimed at Best L/D. Without really realizing it I have been wrapped up in this since day one. Probably since getting blind-sided at the first RACE with what these planes would really do, not only at the race but on the trip out and back. After getting home, raw speed wasn’t what I laid awake thinking about.

A favorite read is RAF’s defense of the 0-235 Long-EZ in CP 28 page 5. The earlier CPs contain similar brilliant rational on the VariEze. It’s totally inspiring, and a great description of efficiency and what these remarkable planes did, and can do if properly set up.

Meanwhile most of us stampede off shouting “the last one to the hamburger joint is a rotten egg”. We have done and will do speed. What would happen if we had track efficiency with the same fervor? With future fuel implications, how far ahead of us are those who already practice Best L/D?

The World’s Most Efficient Airplane
Do you know what the most efficient airplane in the world is?
Years ago Burt designed a plane based on the CAFÉ formula with what was thought to be the most efficient combination possible. The resulting Catbird had five seats and a tail and a canard. And Roncz airfoils. The story goes that after it was tested, some felt the Catbird’s score was the pinnacle everyone could shoot at, but never surpass.

Ever heard of Gary Hertzler?

His veteran VariEze not only surpassed the Catbird in 1994, but was determined to be the most efficient airplane in the world. Five times more efficient than the Boeing 747 at that time. Don’t believe it? Try this link.

Gary’s 118 BHP O-235 VariEze's empty weight was 665.25 lbs. This is another weight that the smart shopper would have on hand. This is obviously the ultimate balance of performance and efficiency. The Babe, N4EZ, was 620 lbs empty when it was finally tweaked out. Gary’s Martian-mobile has only 45 lbs more mass while setting the ultimate practical efficiency mark that no one will ever surpass. Never.

Did you swallow that? Hope not.
I don’t know if Gary’s plane still holds the CAFÉ mark or not. Ragardless, will a 500 lb VariEze someday be the best? After setting the CAFÉ standard on its ear, Gary’s comment was that he hoped that his new record would challenge others to improve upon it.
And that’s the point.

I imagine a parallel universe where the VariEze stayed on course. Arriving at Jackpot and Kanab and Wendover and Spinks for the big weekend, EZ drivers and drivettes nose-over and tie down their pristine glassical rides. A laptop is plugged into their machine. As the newest arrival’s efficiency numbers scroll up on the scoreboard everyone including Maverick turns to see who’s the best. We still make the highly cerebral full throttle run around the desert, and love it. But later around the pool, the huddle talk is new proven materials and Best L/D, and how the development efforts have nudged up just right, right up to the yellow line...

Yellow line...?

While it’s desirable to cruise as fast as possible, it’s not always practical. A few EZs can cruise pretty close to Vne. Is that a problem? Does it matter if we are cruising in the yellow? And what engine is too much?

What do you think after reading this?

There might be more to Flying High and Fast than most of us think. What additional structural considerations arise when cruising forty miles an hour faster than intended?

Years ago cruising back from places like Jackpot and Kanab I used to wonder about the apex of power and performance. Along the way it made me want to build lighter.
The 399 lb VE hit 180 mph on 65 hp; that’s 3 miles per hour for each hp.
A 100 hp EZ can hit 200 mph; 2 for 1.
A 300 hp canard can hit 300 mph; 1 to 1.
It is fascinating today that an optimized 100 hp-ish VariEze and a 300 hp-ish Berkut top out at fairly close to the same speed.

Re-enter the 520 lb VariEze. Ha!
Besides using Long-EZ gear attachments and trying to starve the airframe of epoxy, what would the optimum VariEze be today if we had stayed on course? We have the need for speed. Drag reduction is transitioning from an art to a common practice. But is there fun ground still to be made trading back toward weight?

Many of you are already in the parallel universe efficiency hunt. I hope to know who you are. I applaud your overlooked efforts. Would love to hear your thoughts. That, in fact, is the whole idea here. To nudge the incentive your way and also maybe generate a little competition for you. Lead on.

The Rocket Races seem to include an efficiency angle, maybe using energy and fuel conserving strategies. I heard they require four pit stops per heat for excitement. Wonder what they are going to do at halftime? Maybe a guy-off-the-street EZ efficiency run? Is there someone that would beat an EZ?

If there ever is a Best L/D weekend somewhere, if you don’t have one yet, or if it’s worn out, Rob Martinson’s “When The Flag Drops The BS Stops” T-shirts would still have full meaning there.

VariEze on the plus side
With less drag the average VariEze has maybe a 20 mph advantage over the Long-EZ with the same engine, ideally providing an efficiency bump. But that’s just speed, who cares about that. Nobody is concerned about money either, but there can also be a fairly significant difference in materials and powerplant cost. But that doesn’t count because it always costs too much anyway.

Thanks to ailerons, vortelons and the speed brake, the control and landing characteristics of today’s VariEze are much improved from its initial rollout. Without them the VariEze might have gone the way of the Q2, an exciting concept but with only a few special examples out there, like the really nice Q200 at RR this year. Or the BD-5.

And of course, VariEze innovations are done. Kaput. No more new ideas.
Oh - have you tried the Trailing Edge Fences? It would be interesting to pair up the two EZ brothers for a side by side “minimum speed” comparison. If the Vari was even close to the Long-EZ, that would show a commendable stride resulting from Burt’s early recovery efforts. What additional improvements are waiting in the wings?

What it is
You could say, unless you are really into Best L/D, the VairEze is just too ambitious, requiring too much nagging self discipline to retain optimum operating limits, or even fit in the front seat! You would probably have to be crazy to prefer the VariEze.

Yep, crazy. So crazy you would actually enjoy the challenge of the spartan lifestyle, as if it would motivate you to stay young and lean to match your plane, and limber enough to still turn around to see the fuel gauges. So crazy that you might know your best L/D speed. So crazy that even after flying nice LongEZs, you still get a sideways grin climbing into your erupting VariEze heading out, wriggling into your well worn place at the controls where life is good and you close the canopy and it’s about to get better…

Remember now, clinically, all the statistics trend away from the VariEze. Until…

The nimble nodding steed ambles up, the throttle growls alive
Lumbering gravity lugs and lags and looses, whirling wheels fling free
Renegade’s aviary artwork lofts up weightless from the world
Sleek halo mist shroud whisks behind whistling whirling vanishing
Racing prismed earth whirls effortlessly gushing blending swelling
Rising up through thigh and thorax and thought, penetrating mixing
Rushing Spirit spreading filling graceful glass laminar threaded cord
Captured by sweeping searching sunset rays cresting cascading cirrus surf, Sculptor, now the sculpture, breathless boundless Bernoulli borne rapture

- Now what’s the name of this danged airplane again?

Bill James, Fort Worth VariEze
Still the one.

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