The 1975 Fly-In at Oshkosh took place just a few weeks after Lesher’s world distance record, and Burt Rutan’s new Vari-Eze was the star of the show. Hearts pounded and jaws dropped as delirious pilots proclaimed, “That’s it! That’s what I’ve been waiting for!”
Pilots liked the BD-5, but the Vari-Eze had the two seats desired by many builders and was said to be capable of flying non-stop from California to Illinois for only $30 in fuel. Rutan sold plans for the airplane from his company, Rutan Aircraft Factory.
However, the Vari-Eze didn’t just show up at Oshkosh — it showed off its stuff that week with a new world record for distance over a closed course set by older brother Dick Rutan. For a closed course record, the pilot flies several circuits over a fixed set of points on the ground, landing back at the point of departure – similar to running laps around a racetrack. Dick, a major in the Air Force at the time, required two attempts to break the record – the engine blew up on the first try and he made an emergency landing in Green Bay.
Resourceful helpers back at Oshkosh scrounged a VW engine from another engine, slapped it onto the Vari-Eze, and Dick tried again two days later. This time he made it, breaking the previous closed-course record set by Lesher in his Teal by more than 83 miles. However, the absolute distance set by Lesher on July 2 still stood, and it would be another nine years before that record fell, to another Vari-Eze. In 1986, Dick Rutan, along with co-pilot Jeanna Yeager, set an even bigger record – they were the first to fly any aircraft non-stop around the world, unrefueled, in yet another of Burt’s designs, the Voyager.
In the early 1980s, a pilot named Gary Hertzler tinkered with the Vari-Eze design by redesigning the exhaust system, changing the inlet to the engine, adding a special propeller, and coating the airplane with exceptionally smooth paint. Beginning in 1982, Hertzler won an award for fuel efficiency three years in a row. Just a few weeks after his third win in June 1984, Hertzler flew non-stop from Mojave, California to Martinsburg, West Virginia, for a distance of 2,221 miles, nearly 500 miles further than the original record Arnold had planned to beat.