VariEze

Bob Purdy loved airplanes all his life. When Bob was eight years old, in 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew The Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic from New York to Paris and inspired a national passion for planes. As a kid, Bob hung around airports and flew models. After graduating from high school in Detroit, he worked for the Ford Motor Company and became a tool and die maker. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he and his two brothers enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Bob then flew B-24 Liberator bombers over Italy, was shot down, captured by the Nazis and spent time in Stalag Luft I, the prison camp near the North Sea. After the war he returned to Detroit and in 1954 moved to California.

We married when I was in my 40s and he was in his 50s. From our home in Berkeley, he loved to go to air shows in San Jose and Watsonville. He then renewed his pilot’s license, rented Piper Cubs and we flew around California. His day job was teaching machine shop at the East Bay Skills Center in Oakland. One day he said, “I think I would like to build an airplane.” My clueless response was, “That’s nice.”

He spent several months looking at kits available for those building airplanes at home and finally settled on Rutan’s VariEze. Burt Rutan was an airplane designer in Mojave, California, where, in 1975, he designed the VariEze made of foam and fiberglass. After creating a sensation with it at the Experimental Aircraft Association show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Rutan developed kits that homebuilders could buy. About 2000 VariEzes were under construction by 1980, with some 300 flying by late 1980. (The sale of kits ended in 1985.) 

Building an airplane

Kit construction

Homebuilding 40 years ago was a lot more complicated than today’s quick-build kits.

With enthusiasm, in 1976 Bob bought VariEze Kit #216, a number we later painted on the plane. The aircraft was unique in many ways. Rather than constructed of metal, it was made of foam and fiberglass and finished with coats of epoxy. The plane was a pusher, that is, the engine was in the rear. It rested on three wheels, two under its wings and one under the nose. The tail, or canard, was in the front and the wing tips had added winglets. To counter balance the weight of the rear engine, the plane had to rest on its retracted nose wheel on the ground.The pilot sat in the front and the passenger in the rear, tandem style.  

As it turned out, building the VariEze was very hard. The whole concept of molding fiberglass was very new. Bob used a hot-wire cutter to slice the plane’s foam core to shape, then covered the core with epoxy resin and fiberglass cloth. As he began to use the epoxy coating on the fiberglass core, he discovered that the fumes activated his asthma, so he designed a helmet for protection. The helmet received fresh air from an old vacuum cleaner blower installed on our house’s roof. It blew fresh air through a hose going through the window into his mask. He bought cotton shirts from Goodwill for 25 cents that he could throw out after one use and wore rubber gloves. Later, a less toxic epoxy came out, but for us it was too late.

Bob precisely followed the kit’s instructions, made paper templates and carved and covered the foam cores. He found an aircraft engine that he liked and bought it; we polished it up and featured it as a sculpture in the living room. He implemented the engineering needed to build the aircraft and installed its flying instruments. 

In 1978, I had a new job in Carbondale, Illinois. A friend gave us an old trailer to load up the plane’s pieces and cart it to the Southern Illinois Airport. There he found a hangar to share with another VariEze builder.  

Bob’s next task was to find another engine. After much thought he decided that the engine he had bought in California would not function well on a plane that had an engine that pushed from the rear, so he sought another, the 100-horsepower Continental O-200 engine that Rutan recommended. In Highland, Illinois, there was a used airplane parts store called Wick’s Aircraft Supply that had a huge hangar with parts from twisted turkeys (crashed airplanes) that hung from the walls and rafters. There, he bought a four cylinder engine with very few miles on it. He also found a wooden propeller that would be good for the plane. It was a beautiful sculpture so we hung it as an art piece over the fireplace until it was needed. 

After several months of intense construction, the day arrived for the VariEze’s first flight. We called together a few friends on April 16th, 1979, at 6:30 am, dawn, when the air is very still. To start the engine, Bob had to spin the prop by hand until it caught; the plane did not have an electric starter. We all held our breath as he climbed in, took off, made several laps around the field and landed safely. 

Then he had to fly the plane for 40 hours in order for it to be inspected and certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. This is a fairly rigorous process. After inspection, he had to fly hours of test flights in non-populated areas to make sure everything was operating properly. Only after that could he carry passengers. His days were filled with doing touch-and-goes at our local airport. Passing inspection was like achieving knighthood.

Flying around Illinois was an adventure. Although we normally flew at 5,000 feet, we enjoyed tracing the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at 500 feet; they called it wet beaming. I acted as navigator. We flew along the rivers over ports, bridges, barges, and scows. If we could not figure out exactly where we were, we could fly down to 200 feet and read the name of a town off of its water tower. 

Naturally, we wanted a picture of the plane in flight, so a friend took the door off his 1946 Luscombe, strapped me in the passenger seat, and flew near the VariEze where I could take photos. What fun.

The Finished VariEze, N216EZ 

VariEze

The finished product.

The VariEze was small, its body only 15 feet long and wingspan 23 feet. The whole plane weighed 580 pounds. Each wing tank held 12 gallons of fuel and a spare tank held another 2.5 gallons. Its maximum takeoff weight was 1,050 pounds. With 28 gallons of gas, a full fuel load left a margin of only 326 pounds for the total weights of the pilot and the passenger. Bob weighed 150 pounds and I somewhat more, so weight was an issue. 

As it turned out, we two could fly comfortably for about 300 miles before landing for fuel. It travelled at about 150 miles per hour and used about 5 gallons of gas an hour. The plane was covered with a long clear plexiglass canopy; we had good visibility so I could enjoy aerial photography.

We had to land at general aviation airports, not those used for commercial aircraft. The runway had to be at least 3,500 feet long and paved. We only flew during daylight and in good weather. We always had radio contact with the airport tower who would guide us into landing. The VariEze was a hot little plane; we landed at about 70 miles per hour.

Our First Journey

On Memorial Day, May 28, 1979 we took off on our first long journey and flew from Carbondale to Charlevoix, Michigan, a shakedown cruise of about 600 miles. It truly was a shakedown cruise, not only for the plane but for us.

We stopped at small airports about 150 miles apart for refueling. Our first landing was at Champaign, Illinois, where we discovered that Bob forgot the gadget that unscrews the gas tank cap, so I went into the airport gift shop and bought a pair of kindergarten scissors and they worked just fine.

Our next stop was at Meigs Field, a single runway airport that was located along Lake Michigan across from the Chicago Loop. As we flew in, the tower complained that he could not see our tiny little white plane coming from across the lake until we appeared and landed. This inspired Bob to later install a light in the plane’s nose. Just 15 minutes before we landed, a DC-10 passenger plane landing at O’Hare in Chicago lost its engine; this caused quite a stir. We didn’t see it, but we received a lot of comments on the safety of flight. Bob’s response was, “All engines are put on by someone, and I know who put on mine.”

On landing at Charlevoix’s airport, the nose wheel collapsed and we ended up skidding to a stop nose down. This created a problem as to how to take off, so while I visited with Charlevoix family, Bob sneaked off to repair the wheel. After returning to Carbondale and consulting with Rutan, he redesigned the wheel and Bob installed the new one. Since his was amongst the first VariEzes to be completed, Bob had the honor of discovering needed revisions.

The VariEze caused a sensation in Michigan when we landed; it was written up in the Charlevoix Courier and the Detroit Free Press.

Memorable Landings

In June we left for California with two VariEzes, Bob Mudd’s N295EZ and our N216EZ. We stopped at small airports about 150 miles apart, heading toward Albuquerque, Mudd’s new home. They all had tiny, one-room offices and gas for fueling. Tucumcari, New Mexico’s was deserted, not a human for miles; they left a courtesy car for travelers. We gassed up and they trusted us to pay. 

Sandia Mountains

Flying a single engine airplane across the country allows you to see some amazing view.

In Albuquerque, it was quite a challenge to land at 5,000 feet altitude. We could see New Mexico’s mesas, fluffy cloud patterns, the Sandia Mountains—astonishing beauty. 

A very important stop was in Mojave to visit Burt Rutan. Although we arrived at 6 pm, Rutan was out testing his next model, the LongEze, and was extremely hospitable; three VariEzes had flown in that day. He checked over the plane and made some suggestions, allowed us to tour his workshop and took us to a motel. Gaining his praise compared to earning a Ph.D.

Our Last Flight

After enjoying our VariEze for several years, in 1984 we had an experience which led us to the realization it was time to sell. We flew north to a small airport at Shelter Cove, California, where we planned to spend the night. Unbeknownst to us, it was the height of the salmon fishing season and there was no place for us to stay. The cove was thronged with boats unloading salmon and full of fisher folk. It was clear that we must fly home before dark.

The problem was that when the VeriEze engine flew for a while, it was hot. And when the engine was hot, it was difficult to restart. In order to get us home, Bob had to hand push the propeller many times until the engine caught. When he was finally successful, he was exhausted. Then, an exhausted Bob had to fly the plane to Buchanan Field. Bob was now somewhat older. It was clear that his flying days had ended.

When Bob listed the plane in an aircraft newspaper, he had to be very careful to whom he sold it. The VariEze was a fast plane that required careful maintenance. He finally found a buyer who could handle it. 

There is now a VariEze on the roof of the Hiller Airport Museum in San Carlos, California, that I gaze on with fond memories as I drive by on Highway 101 toward San Jose. Bob loved to fly; building and flying the VariEze was the realization of a dream. 

Margot Smith
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6 replies
  1. George Haeh
    George Haeh says:

    Wonderful article on homebuilding in the “good” old days. That said, my memory is that the VariEze was easier to fabricate than the general run of kits at the time.

    Aspiring homebuilders would do well to read this article to know what they are getting into.

    Reply
  2. Tim Colvin
    Tim Colvin says:

    Thanks for the article Margot, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to own a VariEze. So many adventures!

    Reply
  3. Toode Marshall
    Toode Marshall says:

    What a lovely story Margot, I went down the same path with my new husband. We both were pilots, gliders mainly and knew Bob Mudd when he was flying out of Moriarty airport New Mexico. Both of us lived in Truckee CA where Bob built a Harmon Rocket in our garage. Bob flew out of Buchannan Field when he was learning to fly, I flew from a private glider field north of Livermore, then worked on my Private Pilot License at the Livermore Airport. We moved to Truckee in 1993.
    Yes, your husband certainly got his Ph.D. building from plans an airplane with a new design and construction methods which was extremely difficult. So glad you both got to meet Burt Rutan that was the highest compliment your husband could ever receive. It’s a very satisfying accomplishment to fly an airplane that was built with loving hands. The Rocket was very fast, carrying 2 people with a large engine in a very small plane. We flew to Oshkosh, the trip of a life time plus other aviation events. Bob qualified for the Reno Air Races by attending Rookie School, but life got in the way and he never raced. There are great events in a persons life that affords a wider perspective to take over creating such a rich life because someone had a dream. Thanks very much for writing a beautiful story, I know you enjoyed flying with your husband as I did. However, we are no longer flying, it was time for us too.

    Reply
  4. STEVEN
    STEVEN says:

    Excellent article, thank you! One thing I wonder about is Bob’s decision to leave aviation when he found the hard work of hand propping the VariEze was too tough. Shouldn’t he consider a different airplane with an electric starter? I have never had to hand prop anything since my first lesson in 1980. An airplane without an electric system was rare even then.

    It’s good to hear from a nonflying spouse in this article, too. It’s a less documented point of view in the aviation literature.

    Reply

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