Remembering Dick Rutan’s First Rocket Powered Air Mail Flight

by Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News
Fifteen years ago, on Dec. 3, 2005, renowned test and Voyager Aircraft-command pilot Dick Rutan rocketed into the history books again by setting a new aerospace record that was certified by National Aeronautic Association.

Additionally, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale awarded Rutan the 2005 Bleriot Medal in recognition of the flight. The award is named after Louis Bleriot, the first person to fly across the English Channel.

“The EZ was the first rocket vehicle to carry U.S. Mail from one Post Office to another; all other ‘rocket mail’ was flown just to be flown,” said Randall Clague who was the safety officer for XCOR Aerospace, and in charge of government liaison. “The previous NAA record was a few hundred feet, set by an ultralight with some hybrid rockets attached. There was no previous FAI record.”

The EZ-Rocket, on its 25th flight, set the world record for Distance Without Landing for its class when it flew 9.94 miles from the Mojave Air and Space Port to California City; both in Southern California’s High Desert.

Dan DeLong, XCOR cofounder with XCOR EZ-Rocket. (Courtesy photograph)

“That was the shortest long-distance record flight ever!” Rutan exclaimed. He previously held the record for flying around the world, non-stop, unrefueled, in the Voyager aircraft.

Clague added that this was the first rocket-powered, cross country flight in North America. The maximum altitude on the flight was 8,500 feet. “We only did the flight after we had verified that Dick could take off from Mojave, fly to Cal City, reject the landing, and return to Mojave without relighting the engines,” said Clague.

Flying the chase aircraft as Dick Rutan lifted off from Mojave’s runway 30 was America’s First Commercial Astronaut, Mike Melvill. He was flying his own homebuilt Long EZ.

As everyone knows, Melvill piloted Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne on its first flight past the edge of space, becoming the first person to pilot a privately built aircraft into space and making history as the first commercial astronaut on June 21, 2004.

With Dick Rutan’s piloting expertise, XCOR’s EZ-Rocket made a record-setting point-to-point flight, departing from Mojave Air and Space Port at 11:40 a.m. with the twin rocket engines, and gliding to a touchdown at the neighboring airport in California City.

The EZ-Rocket on display at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif., Plane Crazy Saturday 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Long-EZ first flight, Oct. 19, 2019. (Courtesy photograph)

Stashed onboard the EZ-Rocket were four pouches of mail from the Mojave Post Office to be delivered to California City. This was the first official delivery of U.S. Mail by a rocket-powered aircraft.
Mike Massee, XCOR graphic artist and photographer, took photos of the flight.

“We were circling and maneuvering a lot in a friend’s Beechcraft Bonanza to keep formation with the EZ so I got pretty nauseous,” said Massee.

“That flight resulted in the only air-to-air photo I ever got of the EZ-Rocket or any other XCOR flight vehicle,” Massee reported. “We were unable to keep up with it under power so it’s in glide mode, turning to head to Cal City.”

Massee also said, “That was the day the original builder of that EZ air frame showed up with his family. I think his name was Bill Perry. He was over the moon to see it being used for great things.”

The EZ-Rocket was a modified Long-EZ homebuilt aircraft that was propelled by twin 400-pound thrust rocket engines and fueled by isopropyl alcohol and liquid oxygen.

Beginning in 2000, the EZ-Rocket was built in nine months, from paper plans to flight, by a highly motivated small team under a tight budget. Starting with a Long-EZ that had suffered a hard landing, the airframe was repaired and modified to accommodate the rocket propulsion system. The existing firewall was used, and an extended set of engine cowls added to contain the propulsion system and to move the CG further aft to make up for the lighter engine set.

The rear seat was removed to accommodate the liquid oxygen tank, and a pressurized belly tank was added to contain the fuel.

After a number of static ground tests, the first flight of the EZ-Rocket took place on July 21, 2001, with pilot Dick Rutan at the controls. The following year, the EZ-Rocket became the first rocket powered aircraft to be given an experimental-exhibition airworthiness certificate by the FAA, and subsequently performed before the public at the EAA Airventure Airshow in Oshkosh, Wisc., in 2002 and later at the X-Prize Cup event in New Mexico in 2005.

Dick Rutan delivers the mail to California City. The EZ-Rocket flight on Dec. 3, 2005, was the first time a rocket vehicle had been used to carry U.S. mail from one post office (Mojave) to another (California City). (Photograph by Mike Massee)

In total the EZ-Rocket flew 26 times. The EZ-Rocket had three pilots during its flying career. The principal test pilot was Dick Rutan (16 flights) followed later by the late former NASA Astronaut Richard Searfoss (nine flights), plus a single flight piloted by Melvill in 2002.

The EZ-Rocket is on loan to Mojave Air and Space Port, and was on display at the Plane Crazy Saturday 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Long-EZ first flight. Oct. 19, 2019.

XCOR Aerospace was founded in Mojave, Calif., in 1999 by Jeff Greason, Dan DeLong, Aleta Jackson and Doug Jones who had previously worked at Rotary Rocket.

Building on the EZ-Rocket’s success, XCOR Aerospace had planned to proceed towards a phased development of its next generation vehicle, the suborbital RLV named Xerus, which was to take a passenger and a pilot to an altitude of more than 60 miles — or “astronaut wings” altitude.

Unfortunately their plans did not materialize and in 2017 XCOR closed its doors and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

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