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  • Ryszard Zadow

2024 AirVenture Rutan Reunion Flight, meet the Pilots and Planes..

Fifty years ago Burt Rutan flew an entirely new type of homebuilt aircraft made from foam and fiberglass, materials not typically seen in light aircraft back then. Named the Varieze, it started what we call today, the Composite Canard Revolution. From the Varieze came a whole line of aircraft Burt designed and more. It’s not a stretch to say anything flying today made of composite materials has its roots in the Varieze.

To celebrate this game changing event, Rutan Aircraft Flying Experience will be flying all the Rutan homebuilt models in the airshow at AirVenture 2024. This is not just a few fly-bys. It’s an aerial display the likes never seen before. All of the aircraft Burt designed and sold plans for, the VariViggen, Varieze, Long-EZ, Defiant, Quickie and Solitiare plus Catbird and Boomerang all in the air at the same time before the crowd at Oshkosh with a narrator telling the story of Burt Rutan and each of these unique aircraft designs. Meanwhile, in Boeing Plaza another set of aircraft representing Burts Homebuilt achievements will be on display the whole day. Burt will be speaking at the Theatre in the Woods and hosting Forums all week. So will RAFE. AirVenture 2024 will be a whole week of total Rutan imersion!

Rutan designs attract an eclectic crowd. One of the challenges RAFE faced was who to invite to participate in this presentation. Everyone I’ve known for the nearly 50 years I’ve been involved with Rutan designs is, in my humble opinion, unique and interesting. Out of that long list we had to narrow it down. The criteria we decided upon were those who stood out amongst a community of people that typically already stand out above the crowd. A tough call to say the least.

Since it’s the 50th anniversary of the Varieze, please allow me to start the introduction with probably the most senior Vareize builder and flyer there is, Ken Swain. I’ve known Ken for decades. He is a fixture within the canard world. He is not only one of the first builders of the Varieze, but he’s also been flying his Varieze for almost all of the fifty years the design has been around and he’s brought it to Oshkosh each and every year since! He’s also featured in one of the most read articles on the RAFE website: Quick Build is a State of Mind

Ken Swains Resume is impressive. He will be a hard act to follow but being eight weeks out from this big event, RAFE will be introducing the Rutan Reunion flight and Boeing Plaza display Pilots and their story, we’re proud to have them be a part of this event and proud the introduce them.

See you at AirVenture 2024, Monday July 22nd for the Rutan Reunion Flight and the 50th anniversary of the Varieze and the Composite Canard Revolution!


Ryszard Zadow

Founder and President,

Rutan Aircraft Flying Experience

Ken Swain:

-  Retired career professional pilot

-  BS Mechanical Engineering, Texas Tech 1974

-  USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 75-08, 1974 - 1975

-  USAF / USAFR Pilot:  20 years, 1974 - 1994

-  United Airlines Pilot:  > 32 years total, 1985 - 2017

                                              > Captain for 25 years               

-  Flight Experience:  >  Flying for over 50 years

                                             >  3 1/2 YEARS of flight time (do the math….)

                                             >  Former USAF Instructor Pilot

-  Smallest airplane flown:  VariEze

-  Largest airplane flown:  C-5 Galaxy

-  Married to wife Nancy for 50 years with twin daughters.


Ken Swain began flight training as an ROTC cadet in the fall semester of 1973 at Texas Tech University, where he was in his senior year studying mechanical engineering.  He earned his Private Pilot license that October.  The following summer he began active duty with the US Air Force and was assigned to Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 75-08 at Reese AFB in west Texas.  One day a classmate showed him an article about a homebuilt airplane called the VariViggen and it's young designer, Burt Rutan.  Ken was intrigued but UPT is intense and leaves little time for sleep, let alone hobbies. 

A year later found Ken flying the C-141 Starlifter at Travis AFB, CA, and his friend stationed just up the highway in Sacramento at Mather AFB.  During a visit, his friend asked, "Have you heard about Burt Rutan's NEW airplane, the VariEze?"  Ken read the article and was absolutely hooked and subscribed to the newsletter.  In July of 1976, the issue arrived that announced plans were finally available and he bought his by return mail.  When his copy of the plans arrived, he immediately began the project and 18 months later his new VariEze N4ZZ flew for the first time.  It made its first trip to Oshkosh that summer in 1978 and has flown to the airshow every year since. 

Ken's VariEze was the first west of the Mississippi to fly with an O-235 engine, long before there were 'official' Lycoming plans.  In November of 1978 it also became the first 4 place VariEze when he and his wife Nancy took their 3 week old twins flying for the first time. The desire to optimize his particular engine airframe combination eventually prompted Ken to learn how to design and carve his own propellers.

1982 saw Ken reassigned to Offutt AFB, NE, where he became an Instructor Pilot in the T-39 Sabreliner, and president of Omaha's EAA Chapter 80.  In 1985 he was hired by an Air Force Reserve squadron that was converting from the C-130 to the C-5 Galaxy and he went to training that spring.  That summer he began a 32 year career with United Airlines.  United sent him to the Chicago crew base where he remained his entire career.  Late in August, 1990, his AF Reserve squadron was called to active duty to fly in support of the first Gulf War, Desert Storm, and Ken was gone from United for almost a year.  He was released from active duty just in time to fly N4ZZ to Oshkosh 1991.

The one constant in Ken's life through all the career moves and airplane changes has been his Varieze.  In a very real way it helped him maintain his ability to fulfill the demands of professional flight operations at the highest level.  It allowed him to reliably  reconnect with grass roots flying and decompress whenever the challenges of the 'big airplane' world became exceptionally stressful.  In a similar way the good folks who populate the canard composite world are a very real constant as well.  Neighbors and work colleagues come and go, but as time goes on seeing old canard friends at various airshows and gatherings becomes every bit as enjoyable as seeing the airplanes.





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