The Catbird is one of Rutan's greatest achievements, yet it has led quite a low-key career and is largely overlooked.

The Catbird didn't wear the side stripes on its first flight.

In flight, the Catbird is a beauty from every angle.

Burt standing proudly next to one of his favorite creations.

Artist's view of the Catbird's cockpit arrangement.

Status: company-owned experimental aircraft (was briefly a Beechcraft product)

Type:  high-performance general aviation five-seater

Program:  CAFE 400 efficiency race

Powerplant: 1 x 210hp (155kW) TC Continental, later 1 x 210 bhp Lycoming TIO-360-C1A6D

First flight: 14 January 1988

The RAF/Scaled Model 81 Catbird was a proof-of-concept lightplane aimed at replacing the Beech 'Bonanza'. This very sleek little five-place tractor airplane was powered by a single 210 hp turbocharged four-cylinder Lycoming TIO-360 with a two-bladed Hartzell constant speed prop on the front end, and the pilot sitting up front on the centerline. The next row of passengers sat on either side of the pilot but aft about 15", the 4th and 5th passengers sat back-to- back with numbers 2 and 3, facing aft. The airplane had a very low drag, low wing with a forward swept "T" tail and a small canard near the firewall.

The Catbird was the last airplane Burt designed at RAF before Scaled was bought out by Beech and RAF stopped selling plans. It has been a "back burner" project ever since then. Michael Dilley built the plugs and made some of the fuselage molds before he left RAF to go to work with Larry Lombard at FeatherLite Products. Bruce Evans (Voyager's crew chief) came in to help and between him and Mike Melvill, the rest of the fuselage molds were completed. Larry Lombard and Mike Dilley made the plugs and panel molds for the wing panels, and Bruce Evans did most of the work on the vertical and horizontal tail surfaces. Slowly but surely, the Catbird took shape. In 1987, the crew at Composite Prototypes, Jim Shultzman, Ray Ratzlaff (both Long-EZ builders) and Greg Garrett brought the project to completion.

On January 13, 1988, Mike Melvill conducted low-speed taxi, high-speed taxi, and runway lift-offs in ground effect. Finally, on January 14th, Mike taxied out accompanied by Burt and Doug Shane in the Beechcraft Duchess chase plane. Three more runway flights were conducted to verify the pitch trim position. Finally, Mike pushed up the power; the Catbird rotated at 50 KIAS, lifted off at 60 KIAS. Climb was flown at 80 KIAS, to 8000 feet. All the tufts behaved just as Burt Rutan had said they would, flying qualities were excellent and engine temperatures were optimum. Visibility was great, and at cruise rpm, the cockpit remained very quiet. Rate of climb was a very respectable 2,000 fpm through 16,000 feet. One hour later, with the gear retracted, Mike flew two low approaches for the large crowd of Scaled Composites and Composite Prototypes employees assembled on the ramp. He then put the gear down and landed smoothly on Mojave's runway 7.

When he designed the Catbird, Burt Rutan had predicted that it would win the CAFE 400 efficiency race. This prediction came true on June 25, 1988 when his CATBIRD won overall, setting a new record high score, winning the "Best New Design Award" in its category—Experimental, three or more seats—and the Tom Jewett Memorial Award (best MPG x Payload); and for the pilot, Mike Melvill, winning the coveted LoPresti Award. The Catbird carried five people on board for the race and was loaded with 63 gallons of fuel to bring her payload up to 1000 lbs. She lifted off in about 1500 feet, well within the 2000 feet criteria and, thanks to their brand new Northstar M1 Loran navigation system, flew the course accurately until the last turn point.

At this point, Rutan and Melvill realized that this was the wrong airport, and therefore headed for the correct airport. The error cost them only a few miles and perhaps 30 seconds but certainly got their attention! They flew over the final check point, the Santa Rosa air center (which is where they stopped the clock), and entered downwind, got the gear down, landed quite short and taxied to the weight scales. Rutan and Melvill knew from their Alcor fuel-flow indicator what we had burned, but they wanted it verified on official scales. They were most satisfied when the weighing showed they had used within 1-1/2 lbs, or 1/4 gallon of their indicated fuel flow! Knowing their race time, they now knew their CAFE score and hat they had won. The crew of five then shared the prize money.

Worthy of mention is the fact that Gary Hertzler, in his 80 HP VariEze, won the experimental two place as well as the CAFE Award for the largest percentage of gain in fuel efficiency in a category. Gene Sheehan was second in his quick 100 HP Q-200, followed by Klaus Savier in his very fast 100 HP VariEze. All these were of course Rutan designs, which says something about their qualities. Burt later entered the Catbird unofficially in the Jackpot races, under the Exhibition class (reserved for unlimited EZ's), and proceeded to completely annihilate the course record, set by Mike Melvill the previous year at 225,98, with a blistering speed of 245.54 mph. The Catbird was later fitted with a fully functional S-Tec System 50, two-axis auto pilot, quite expensive a device , but extremely helpful for anyone flying much IFR. "It took several iterations to get the auto pilot matched up to the rather zippy control rates of the Catbird but it was worth it".

The Catbird led a low-key career and is seldom documented, but it is a true milestone in Rutan's designing career. After Dick Rutan set an unofficial, 2000 kilometer, closed-course speed record in the C1-B weight class (1000 kg/2204 lbs.) with the Catbird on December 20, 1993, Mike Melvill set a national and world speed record in 2004: "Speed over a closed circuit of 2 000 km without payload : 413.78 km/h". The Catbird never made it into production, and was left hanging upside down from the rooftop in Scaled Composites' workshop for most of its lifetime and was even deregistered. Fortunately, you can't keep a good aircraft down (or up in this case), and to mark Burt Rutan's retirement from Scaled Composites, it was decided to uphaul the aircraft and re-register it for the 2011 Oshkosh celebration of Rutan's career and achievements. The aircraft proved once again what a showstopper it was. No wonder it has always been one of Burt's favorite creations!

Population: 1 [N187RA, now N187RR]

Top speed (closed circuit, no payload): 413.78 km/h
MPG: 20.15
Payload: 976.63 lb. (5 seats)

Crew/passengers: 1 crew, 3 passengers

Main sources:

The Catbird caused quite a stir wherever it appeared.

For years the Catbird hung upside down in Scaled's hangar.

To mark Burt Rutan's retirement from Scaled Composites, the Catbird was refurbished, re-registered and flown at the 2011 Oshkosh celebration to everyone's delight.