Passing: Legendary pilot Dick Rutan, whose plane once broke through the ice at the North Pole

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Dick Rutan. Photo credit: California Aviation Museum, which inducted him into its Aviation Hall of Fame in 2018. https://www.museumofflying.org/california-aviation-hall-of-fame/dick-rutan/

The saying is “There are old pilots, and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”

There are still a few “old, bold pilots” around Alaska (you know who you are). But on May 3, 2024 there was one fewer of the legends of aviation. Dick Rutan, who with fellow aviator Ron Sheardown once landed a plane at the North Pole and became stranded after it broke through the ice, “flew west” Friday in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho at the age of 85, his family wrote.

Lt. Col. (Ret.) Richard Glenn Rutan was born July 1, 1938 in Loma Linda, Calif. He was a retired United States Air Force officer and Vietnam War fighter pilot who flew 325 missions in Vietnam, ejecting once after his plane was hit by a rocket.

“During his time in the skies over Vietnam, Dick was a member of an elite group of Fast Forward Air Controllers, often loitering over enemy anti-aircraft positions for six hours or more in a single sortie. These extremely hazardous missions had the call sign ‘Misty,’ Dick Rutan was, and will forever be, Misty Four-Zero,” his family wrote.

He was a test pilot, and record-breaking aviator, and was awarded the Silver Star, five Distinguished Flying Crosses, 16 Air Medals, and a Purple Heart. (His brother, Burt Rutan, is a legendary aircraft engineer and spacecraft designer and entrepreneur who is known for SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 became the first privately crewed spacecraft.)

“Besides the records Rutan set while flying the XCOR EZ-Rocket (which consisted of a point-to-point distance record and being the first official delivery of U.S. Mail by a rocket-powered aircraft) and while flying Voyager (which consisted of multiple absolute distance records, an airspeed record, and being the first plane to fly non-stop and unnrefueled around the world, more than doubling the old distance record set by a Boeing B-52 strategic bomber in 1962), he has also set a number in his personal Rutan VariEze and Long-EZ,” Wikipedia noted.

After the Vietnam War, Rutan became an F-100 pilot with the 492nd Tactical Fighter Squadron (“Madhatters”) and as a flight test maintenance officer with the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, England. Rutan had to eject a second time in his Air Force career when an engine failed over England. He retired from the Air Force in 1978 at the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The many world records Rutan set can be seen at this link.

Among his firsts was a flight from Anchorage, Alaska to Grand Turk Island, in July, 1981, when Rutan again set a record, flying 4,563.35 miles in a straight line.

In 1986, Rutan piloted the Voyager aircraft on the first non-stop, non-refueled flight around the world.

It was in 2000 when Rutan and Alaska aviation legend Ron Sheardown flew from Anchorage to the North Pole, and on to an island in northern Norway. It was on their return that the two landed on thin ice and the Polish-built AN-2 biplane nosed through the ice up to its wings. They were eventually rescued but the plane has never been found.

May Day: The AN-2 biplane with its nose in the ice at the North Pole this month in 2000. It has never been found, but the souls on board lived to tell the tale.

In 1992 Rutan ran as a Republican against Democratic congressman George Brown, Jr. in California’s 42nd congressional district, in the San Bernardino area, but lost in a close race.

“He spent his last day in the company of friends and family, including his brother, Burt, and passed away peacefully at Kootenai Health Hospital in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in the company of his loving wife of 25 years, Kris Rutan,” said the news release from the family. “He is survived by daughters Holly Hogan and Jill Hoffman, and his four grandchildren, Jack, Sean, Noelle, and Haley. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

Read more about Dick Rutan and his brother Burt Rutan at Disciples of Flight.

Read the story about breaking though the ice at the North Pole at this link. Or at this one.

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