Dick Rutan, Jeana Yeager, and the Flight of the Voyager

May 27, 2007 by Carl Chance
Rutan Model 33 VariEze in wind tunnel

The Rutan Model 33 VariEze was built by the Model and Composites Section of Langley Research Center and then tested in the 30 x 60 Full Scale Tunnel. The craft was not built for flight, but did have an electric motor installed to drive the propeller as part of its aerodynamics study in the tunnel.


Voyager returns from nonstop world trip

Voyager aircraft return from its round-the-world flight.


Rutan Voyager at the Air & Space Museum

The Rutan Voyager now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.


From the Centennial of Flight

Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager embody the very spirit and character of the word “pioneers.” In December 1986, they became the first people to circumnavigate the world, nonstop, without refueling their plane, the Voyager. They also set world flight records in the process. Besides being the first team to travel nonstop around the globe–which was one of aviation’s last record barriers–Rutan and Yeager also endured the longest flight to that date, and almost doubled the then current distance flight record. But their contributions did not stop there. They also explored the limits of human endurance and mental fatigue during their journey. To many, Rutan and Yeager’s flight represented the triumph of human ingenuity as the two aviators overcame a wide range of aerodynamic, financial, physical, and psychological challenges.

Richard “Dick” Rutan was born in Loma Linda, California, on July 1, 1938. An eager individual, Rutan earned both his pilot’s and driver’s licenses on his 16th birthday. At the age of 19 he joined the Air Force Aviation Cadet Program and was later commissioned a lieutenant in the Air Force. He flew 325 missions over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War until September 1968, when his F-100 plane sustained a hit from enemy fire and he had to eject from his aircraft. He evaded capture and was rescued by American forces. Due to his exemplary military record, Rutan received the Silver Star, five Distinguished Flying Crosses, 16 Air Medals, and a Purple Heart.

The second Voyager pilot Jeana Yeager was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on May 18, 1952. By 1978, she had earned her pilot’s license. During her early aviation career, Yeager mainly wanted to learn to fly helicopters, but her interests branched off and she turned her attention to high-performance aircraft. Yeager, who is no relation to the famous test pilot Chuck Yeager, first met Dick Rutan, and his brother Burt, at a California air show in 1980. At the time, Burt and Dick ran their own aircraft company. Interestingly, Yeager set four separate speed records in Rutan EZ planes in the early 1980s.

The Rutans originally conceived of the Voyager during a lunch in 1981. They believed that they could design a plane that could break the world distance record of 12,532 miles (20,168 kilometers) set by a B-52 Air Force crew in 1962. Like many great innovators, they quickly sketched their ideas onto a napkin while still at the lunch table. With the help of an eager group of volunteers, they began building the Voyager the next year. Notably, the entire project relied solely on private funds and donations.

The creation of the Voyager posed several design challenges for the Rutans. Burt, the main project engineer, searched for just the right combination of materials to make the aircraft light enough to reach maximum efficiency and yet strong enough to sustain extremely long-distance flight. He also had to devise a way for the aircraft to hold the enormous amount of fuel necessary to power it, nonstop, around the globe. Eventually the Rutans decided to construct the Voyager’s main structure/fuselage out of a space age composite material consisting mainly of graphite, Kevlar, and fiberglass. The structural weight of Voyager was only about 939 pounds (426 kilograms), but when its 17 fuel tanks were full, its takeoff weight exceeded 9,700 pounds (4,400 kilograms), or more than 10 times its structural weight. Voyager’s wingspan was approximately 110 feet (36 meters). By the time the Voyager made its first test flight on June 22, 1984, the Rutans, Yeager, and scores of volunteers had spent more than 18 months and 22,000 hours working on the aircraft. After more than a year-and-a-half of testing and modifications on Voyager, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager were ready to attempt their record-setting flight.

Rutan, Yeager, and Voyager took off from Edwards Air Force Base, California, at 8:01 a.m. on December 14, 1986. The plane needed almost the entire 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) of runway, which was already one of the world’s longest airstrips, to become airborne; the aircraft did not lift off until it was approximately 14,200 feet (4,328 meters) down the runway, and then it did so only after sustaining a bit of damage. Due to the large amount of fuel contained in Voyager’s wing tanks, the aircraft’s wings bobbed up and down while accelerating down the runway, and in the process, about a foot of each wing tip chipped off. Concerned about the condition of their craft, Rutan and Yeager circled the airfield and checked their plane’s handling conditions. Fortunately, the plane seemed sound enough to continue the journey.

Yeager and Rutan had to endure severe physical and mental demands during their trip. Because of the time required to make a circumnavigational flight, they became extremely fatigued. To combat the problem, they tried to rotate their duties. One crewmember would fly the aircraft, while the other rested. Initially, they tried to work in two-to-three-hour shifts, but things did not always go according to plan. Furthermore, it was extremely difficult to maneuver themselves into a comfortable sleeping position, particularly within the confines of Voyager’s small cockpit, which was only the size of a phone booth.

The two aviators faced several dangers during their flight. One of their greatest challenges was bad weather. At several points during their trip, they had to evade menacing storm fronts. Once, they even had to fly around Typhoon Marge, a 600-mile (966-kilometer)-wide storm. While such maneuvering helped them escape physical harm, it only added to their mental stress. Each time they had to adjust their flight plan by climbing above a storm, or going around one, they burned more fuel, and since Voyager had started the trip with a very tight fuel allotment, they grew increasingly concerned that they might not have enough to complete their journey. As it turned out, they had enough fuel, but just barely.

Rutan and Yeager completed their journey when they touched down at Edwards Air Force Base at 8:06 a.m. on December 23, 1986. The entire 24,986-mile trip had taken 9 days, 3 minutes, and 44 seconds, or a little more than 216 hours. During their trip, they had averaged around 116 miles per hour (187 kilometers per hour), and when they landed, they only had a few gallons of fuel left.

From a record standpoint, Rutan and Yeager became the first aviators to circumnavigate the globe nonstop, without refueling. They also endured the longest flight up to that time, and essentially doubled the previous flight record for distance. Because of their accomplishment, President Ronald Regan awarded the Rutan brothers and Yeager with the Presidential Citizen Medals of Honor, which had been awarded only 16 times previously. They also received the Collier Trophy, aviation’s highest honor, and several other prestigious awards.

In the late 1990s, Dick Rutan attempted to set another around-the-world record, this time in a balloon. Rutan and his teammate David Melton began preparing for the journey when they learned that the Anheuser-Busch Company was offering $1 million to the first team of balloonists who could successfully circumnavigated the world, nonstop. In 1998, Rutan and Melton set out on what they believed would be a record-setting journey, but only three hours into their flight, a helium cell ruptured in their balloon and they had to abandon their trip. Another team of balloonists, sponsored by the Breitling watch company, would beat them into the record books in March 1999.

The Voyager now hangs in a place of honor in the “Milestones of Flight” gallery in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Its 1986 flight revealed just how far aeronautical engineering and design had advanced during more than 80 years of aviation. Rutan and Yeager not only established a couple of world records with the Voyager but also tested the psychological and physiological capabilities of humans under extreme pressure. Rutan and Yeager’s flight proved that people really can live up to Rutan’s personal motto: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

–David H. Onkst

Sources and further reading:

Glines, Carroll V. Round-The-World Flights. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Aero, 1990.

Norris, Jack. Voyager: The World Flight. Northridge, Cal.: Jack Norris, 1987.

Yeager, Jeana and Rutan, Dick. Voyager. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

“Breitling Orbiter 3.” http://www.nasm.si.edu/nasm/aero/aircraft/.breitling.htm

“Burt and Dick Rutan to Participate in EAA AirVenture 2001 ‘Aviation Firsts’ Activities.” Experimental Aviation Association. http://www.eaa.org/communications/eaanews/pr/010119_rutans.html

“Dick Rutan Biography,” http://wwwdickrutan.com/page3.html

“Global Hilton and World Quest.” http://wwwdickrutan.com/page5.html

“Jeana Yeager.” http://www.nasm.edu/nasm/aero/women_aviators/jenna_yeager.htm

“Lectures and Appearances.” http://wwwdickrutan.com/page8.html

Lienhard, John H. “Episode # 218: The Flight of Voyager.” http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi218.htm

“Notable Fly Girls: Jeana Yeager.” Edwards Air Force Base. http://edwards.af.mil/articles/98/docs_html/splash/feb98/cover/jeana.html

“Photo Gallery: Voyager.” http://www.dfrc.nasa.gov/gallery/photo/Voyager/HTML/EC87-0029-02.html

“Rutan Voyager.” http://www.nasm.edu/nasm/aero/aircraft/rutanvoy.htm

“Science: Voyager.” http://www.awesome80s.com/Awesome80s/Science/Transportation/Aviation/86Voyager.asp

Sides, Hampton. “Hey, Where’s the Joystick on this Thing?” Outside Magazine. http://www.outsidemag.com/magazine/0298/9802disphey.html

“Voyager Flight Fun Facts.” http://wwwdickrutan.com/page2.html

Wolf, Chris. “Flying High: Ace Pilot Talks About His Record-Breaking Trip.” Oakland Post Online. http://www.acs.oakland.edu/post/fall97/971015/fl.htm

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