Rutan Aircraft Flying Experience

Keeping Burt Rutan's classic canards alive.


Sitting next to the galley, deep in the hull of a sailing yacht in the midst of a rainstorm, might be an unusual place to research a new aviation concept, but the spark and driving force behind the Rutan Aircraft Flying Experience (RAFE) is not your typical aviation personality, so somehow it all seemed quite fitting. While the rain pattered on the deck above, and the sun slipped behind a glass of wine, Ryszard (pronounced “Richard”) Zadow described the events that led to the creation of an organization dedicated to preserving one of the most innovative aircraft designs.

Ryszard Zadow (left) and Burt Rutan discuss the finer points of canard design.

RAFE uses flying examples to provide training, flying, and educational experiences to anyone interested in canard aircraft. However, as the light dimmed and the tale unfolded, realization dawned that aviation in general, and this story in particular, is not fueled by avgas or money, but by passion.

Ryszard was born into a Polish family of modest means. Like many readers of this magazine, he had a strong interest in flying from an early age, but felt that flying and aircraft ownership was something beyond his means that only a privileged few could enjoy. However, that didn’t stop him from an enthusiastic effort to do whatever he could to be close to aviation. As a boy, he discovered the gears on his bicycle could be leveraged against the road, racing his friends for the 17-mile trip to the Commemorative Air Force base in Harlingen, Texas, where he soaked up the nostalgia of grand airplanes and the men who flew them. In grade school, he built model airplanes. In later grades, he joined the Civil Air Patrol and saved his money to invest in the occasional flying lesson, interrupted only by the necessary amounts squandered on girls. However, flying was still not a pursuit he thought he could truly attain until he joined the Navy, where they not only taught him to fly, but put him in the best seat in the house: strapped into an F-14 Tomcat.

RAFE member and fabricator at JetGuys, Mike Yancey, flies Long-EZ N83JM. The aircraft was donated to RAFE by Jim Madsen, who built it in the early 1990s.

Love at First Sight

It was while he was working on his private pilot license that Ryszard caught a glimpse of a very unusual aircraft, one that even today has one of the most unique profiles of any experimental airplane. The Burt Rutan-designed VariEze was taking the experimental community by storm, and Ryszard was smitten. But it wasn’t until several years later, while flying for the Navy, that together with a partner, he was able to acquire one of his own. Highly innovative for its time, it had the big wing in back with a canard up front. They were rumored to be efficient, stall proof, and the next big thing in aviation, with futuristic design and construction materials. As improbable as it might sound, Ryszard and his co-owner were able to juggle the demands of Navy life, postings to different locations, and the challenges of airplane ownership, though Ryszard eventually bought out the co-owner and still owns the aircraft today, with the intention of always keeping it as his own.

Mike Yancey (left) and Robert and Valerie Harris assist in retrieving the Rutan Defiant project that was donated to RAFE.

After leaving the Navy, the demands of owning a business flying skydivers, building his own airport (Zadow Air, 6XA4), and flying for a major U.S. airline consumed much of his time, until one day, while walking the line at Oshkosh, he realized that the countless rows of airplanes parked nose down in that unique Eze way were missing. Time had marched on, and what seemed like a rising wave of canards had been washed over by other alternatives. The men who had invested so much of their lives creating these machines had, in many cases, moved on to other things or hung up their flying spurs. The pilots were staying home and their aircraft with them.

This was untenable to Ryszard. He saw the Rutan-designed Ezes and their derivatives not only as an important milestone in experimental aviation history and worthy of being preserved, but also as unique and efficient aircraft that should be flown today, thumbing their bowed-down noses at RVs and other more common designs.

Thus was born the Rutan Aircraft Flying Experience, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the Rutan canard designs and their various derivatives.

David Brown’s ashes on the wing of the plane he built, finally arriving at AirVenture. He spent 30 years on the project but was unable to fulfill his dream of flying it to OSH.

Keep ‘Em Flying

At its core, the concept behind RAFE is simple: Acquire donated canard aircraft and fly them, keeping them in the public eye. In practice, it is a challenge to match aircraft and appropriate sponsors, but Ryszard found a workable model had already been pioneered to do just that in the form of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF). The CAF had already worked out a process for acquiring and caring for aircraft, and for assembling appropriately qualified pilots to fly them. Their concepts turned out to be a great fit for RAFE and have been incorporated into the organization’s sponsorship documents.

For those owners with completed, or nearly completed, aircraft developing a layer of dust, RAFE presents an opportunity to contribute their aircraft to a greater cause than just another private sale to an owner flying for personal use. Their airplane becomes part of a larger organization, contributing to the education and promotion of a design and history worthy of being remembered and repeated. RAFE makes a special effort to refer to their airplanes not just by their registration, but by the men who built them, for example, the “Jim Madsen airplane” and the “Dave Brown airplane,” etc.

Leif Johnson’s VariEze at RAFE’s first formation clinic. Leif has raced and won in AirVenture Cup Races.

For those participating in RAFE, it offers a great opportunity to fly unique aircraft under the umbrella of non-profit ownership, trading time, skills, and donations in exchange for time in the pilot’s seat.

There are three main kinds of participants in RAFE. Volunteers donate their time and efforts toward the goal of the organization, including transport of donated aircraft, maintenance, and the tasks associated with running a successful non-profit organization. Donating participants contribute funds and are split into two broad groups: those whose involvement is primarily just donations and those who make larger donations with the intent of forming a sponsor group, whereby selected sponsors are entrusted with the care, flying, and maintenance of an RAFE aircraft.

For its part, the organization finds donated aircraft and puts them through a comprehensive inspection process at their base of operations in Covington, Tennessee. They perform any necessary maintenance or repairs, then test-fly the planes before matching them with sponsor groups who are charged with flying the RAFE flag and keeping the aircraft where they belong—in the air, in front of the public.

Learning Opportunities

The base of operations in Covington also allows RAFE to provide another service to its members: Anyone desiring to improve their composite construction skills can volunteer to work under the experts at JetGuys, Inc. This is an excellent opportunity to learn the skills necessary to work not only on canard aircraft, but on anything composite. It’s also a great way to pick up tips and tricks that could be applied to one’s own project or the fleet of RAFE aircraft stationed around the country.

In addition, RAFE is in the process of putting a comprehensive training program in place. It will let pilots without any canard experience get time in the left seat of a canard with side-by-side seating, under the watchful eye of an experienced canard pilot. This helps ensure that the sponsors are current and capable before they take responsibility for a new RAFE airplane. It is also a great service that can be made available to any new owner of a canard. Like most experimental aircraft, they are not hard to fly, but they are different. Spending some time with an experienced pilot to aid the transition can pay big dividends in improved flight safety and also help the new pilot to recognize the difference between a characteristic that is just new to them versus a problem with the aircraft.

Existing canard aircraft owners who are still actively flying their own aircraft can also do so under the auspices of the RAFE organization, which allows them to display the RAFE logo on their aircraft and participate as a RAFE representative at aviation events, which may provide some tax-saving advantages.

However, while RAFE as an organization provides an innovative and valuable service, it is only a mirror, reflecting the passion of its founder and, perhaps more importantly, the men who dedicated years of their lives to crafting an aircraft for which no quickbuild kits existed. Instead, they built structure and parts the hard way—individually and by hand.

In today’s world of quickbuild kits, in which build times are sometimes measured in months or a handful of years, the decades of dedication displayed by builders of these airplanes stand out as a reflection of their commitment and passion. It’s no wonder that their craft become less of a project and more a member of the family, and when it comes time to part with their airplane, the loss felt by both the builders and their families is similar to watching a grown child leaving through the door for their first day of college.

It is this close bond between the families and their progeny that Ryszard feels most poignantly.

David Brown

The first flying donation to the Rutan Aircraft Flying Experience came from the family of David Brown. David spent 30 years building his aircraft, with the dream of flying it to AirVenture. Unfortunately, despite completing a beautiful aircraft, it was a dream David was never destined to fulfill, as he passed away before he could fly his creation to Oshkosh.

The magnitude of the donation and trust placed in RAFE was immense. After 30 years, the airplane had become part of the family, and no fewer than nine members of David Brown’s family came out to the airport to send their best wishes for the departure. More than one eye was moist as Ryszard accepted David’s ashes, to accompany him to Oshkosh and take their rightful place in the homecoming of his aircraft. A 30-year dream that looked to be foiled was indeed fulfilled through the passion for aviation of a builder, a family, and the man entrusted to help with its final steps.

Ryszard Zadow arriving in Cuba in his Long-EZ. The aircraft was among the first private planes—and the first experimental—to fly to Cuba.

Visiting Cuba

In May of 2017, RAFE not only demonstrated the flying of a beautiful Long-EZ to show what it meant for experimental aviation, but also helped open the aviation experience in another country. The Long-EZ was among the first private aircraft—and the first experimental—to fly to Cuba. Despite the fact that private aviation is almost nonexistent in Cuba and no civilians are allowed to own an aircraft, the citizens there still believe in the dream of flying and have formed the Cuban Aero Club, which invited RAFE and others to fly to their country, demonstrate their aircraft, and inspire people with what is possible.

Part of the purpose of the trip was to meet with government officials and show by example that private aviation can be a positive force, demonstrating the model that has worked so well for us in other countries. While there, Ryszard met a Cuban national named Adolpho Castillo, who had constructed a homebuilt airplane of his own design.

Adolpho Castillo proudly displays his homebuilt. Unfortunately, he had to give it away because, currently, no private individual is allowed to own an airplane in Cuba.

Think about this for a moment: Adolpho is so passionate about aviation that he designed his own airplane and built it in a garage while scrounging for parts in a country with no general aviation parts suppliers. Then he had to give it away because, currently, no private individual is allowed to own an airplane in Cuba.

Kerosene Dreams

Despite all these good things and the innate benefits of the organization, Ryszard recognized that what RAFE really needed was a “hook”—something that would attract people’s attention and pull them in to learn more. That hook came in the form of the CozyJet.

In the early 2000s, a fellow by the name of Greg Richter owned a Mazda-powered Cozy Mk III. Though it was flying just fine on its rotary engine, Greg was bitten with the idea of converting it to jet power. Of course, it helped that some of the biting was done by Robert and Valerie Harris of EZ Jets (now JetGuys, Inc.), who had the experience necessary to successfully complete a project that many said couldn’t be done. Of course, to some people, saying that something can’t be done is like waving a red flag in front a bull, especially when it comes to a passion for aviation.

Kerosene Dreams on display at AirVenture. The plane was a hit and helped attract people to the RAFE concept.

After a year in the shop, the propeller came off and in its place was a General Electric T-58 turboshaft engine with the N2 section removed to make jet power, sending the airplane skyward at over 4500 feet per minute, with a cruise of 280 knots. Kerosene Dreams made its public debut at AirVenture 2005, but had changed hands and faded a bit from the public eye when Ryszard located it again in 2015 and brought it into the RAFE fold.

Of course, what better venue to reintroduce the CozyJet and launch the RAFE project than AirVenture? In late July of 2015, Ryszard found himself on final to the world’s greatest aviation celebration, hoping for a parking spot closer to show center than the North 40. Touching down at aviation’s mecca, he was thrilled to be directed not only to a prime parking spot, but a place of honor at the center of AirVenture, in Boeing Plaza (formerly AeroShell Square). It was here that Ryszard realized that the airplane would more than fulfill its promise of attracting attention, as he was swamped with visitors the whole week of the convention. Everyone wanted to get a look at the homebuilt jet. It seemed Kerosene Dreams had already captured the imagination of many aviation enthusiasts and did a great job of attracting people to the airplane and to the RAFE concept.

Ryszard Zadow (left) and Daryll Luecke show off their canard-themed tattoos. (Ryszard’s is temporary. Ha!)

Spreading the Word

After Oshkosh, Ryszard took the aircraft on tour, participating in race events such as the EZ Race in Kanab, Utah, and the big air race at Reno, Nevada. However, it was while returning from Reno that disaster struck shortly after takeoff, when the engine seized. Fortunately, he was able to dead-stick back to a successful landing [“CozyJet Dead-Stick,” April 2018], but the combination of high altitude, hot day, and a tailwind meant a long rollout with significant braking, causing a brake fire. The airplane is now back at JetGuys for a replacement engine, along with upgrades that will prevent the same kind of thing from happening again in the future. Unfortunately, all of this costs money and RAFE is a non-profit organization with limited capital, so to help finance the repair, a T-shirt fund-raising effort has been launched. However, these are not ordinary T-shirts. Any donation is appreciated, but for higher levels ($500), they come with the promise of a free ride in the CozyJet after it returns to the air. For $1,500, it comes with ground school and one hour of pilot-in-command time at the controls of Kerosene Dreams. For those wanting to feel what it is like to pilot a jet, this could be a great opportunity, while supporting the return to flight of this landmark aircraft.

Ryszard explained that one of the objectives of RAFE is to “memorialize the builder by doing good things with their aircraft.” Kerosene Dreams continues to be a flying testament to their dedication and labor, in hopes it will inspire others to build and fly Rutan designs. From providing transition training, to spreading the word about these great airplanes, to demonstrating an important part of homebuilt history, to opening up aviation in other countries, RAFE appears to be doing just that. However, RAFE would not exist if not for Ryszard Zadow. By acting on his passion, he is making a personal contribution that benefits all of us who love aviation, regardless of its form.

To learn more about the Rutan Aircraft Flying Experience, visit their website or Facebook page.


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