Dick Rutan

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Dick Rutan

Dick Rutan (born 1938) achieved one of the last aviation "firsts." A seasoned aviator trained in the United States Air Force, Rutan and co-pilot Jeana Yeager were the first flyers to pilot an airplane around the world non-stop without refueling. The flight set a world record for closed-circuit, non-stop, non-refueled, around-the-world flight.

Rutan and Yeager flew the Voyager aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base in southern California on the morning of December 14, 1986. They landed the aircraft nine days later at Edwards Air Force Base, joining the ranks of such aviators as Charles Lindbergh, who flew the first solo flight across the Atlantic, and Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

Richard Glenn Rutan was born in Loma Linda, California, July 1, 1938. He was the first of three children in the family of George and Irene Rutan. His father was a dentist. Besides his brother, Burt, he had a sister.

Rutan had a classic American upbringing in the Central Valley town of Dinuba, California. He and his brother Burt were interested in airplanes from an early age. Burt tended to build and fly model airplanes exclusively, while he was considered more "wild" and pursued hot rod cars and fast motorcycles. Rutan began taking flying lessons when he was 15 years old. He would work at odd jobs for nearly a month to earn the money for a 40-minute flying lesson. Eventually, his father caught the obsession with airplanes from his sons, and pooled resources with several of his friends to buy a small airplane. Rutan logged the necessary five hours of instruction at Reedley Airport near Dinuba, and on the day of his 16th birthday—the minimum age at which he was eligible—he applied for and earned both his driving license and his pilot's license.

Joined Air Force as Navigator

After he graduated from high school, Dick Rutan signed on to join the United States Air Force. While awaiting his orders, Rutan attended Reedley Junior College, where he earned Federal Aviation Agency registration as a certified airplane engine mechanic, qualifying him to repair and overhaul jet engines.

Rutan reported to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, for preflight training. He was later assigned to the Air Force's navigator training facility at Harlingen, Texas, where he finished at the top of the radar and celestial navigation class. While Rutan wanted to be a fighter pilot, he did not score high enough on the Air Force's recruitment examination. He was, therefore, assigned as a navigator for his first seven years of service. During this period he flew in C-124 Globemaster transport airplanes innumerable times from Travis Air Force Base in California to Vietnam during the build-up for American participation in the Vietnam War. He later claimed that the critical knowledge gained during his time as a navigator for the Air Force helped in flying the Voyager across the Pacific.

Pilot Status and Vietnam

After applying for pilot status for years, Rutan got his assignment in 1966. In pilot school he came out at the top of his class and was assigned a coveted position as a pilot of a F-100 fighter jet. Rutan flew 325 missions in Vietnam, including 105 Commando Sabre missions. Commando Sabre was responsible for finding and marking targets with smoke rockets so that fighter-bombers could sweep in and destroy the target. The high risk operation was called Forward Air Control (FAC). Rutan and his seatmate were hit by enemy ground fire on Rutan's last FAC mission. They flew their crippled jet 40 miles to ditch in the ocean before ejecting. They were rescued by a helicopter and Rutan asked to be reassigned the next day.

Rutan was given assignments in Northern Italy, Turkey and England, before he landed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, the headquarters for his air wing. In 1975, he was reassigned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona. Rutan retired from the Air Force in 1978, at the age of 39, as a lieutenant colonel. By the time of his retirement, he had been awarded the Silver Star, five Distinguished Flying Crosses, 16 Air Medals and a Purple Heart.

A New Career

While he was in the Air Force, Rutan's brother, Burt, had started the Rutan Aircraft Factory in Mojave, California, to develop and build airplanes of his own design. Rutan joined his brother's business as production manager and chief test pilot. He was eminently familiar with Burt's designs, and had flown one of his earliest creations—the VariEze—to the annual Experimental Aircraft Association Fly-in in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 1975. That airplane, which used a pusher type of propeller mounted on the rear of the plane and canard wings, was a dramatic departure from conventional airship design. In Oshkosh, Rutan piloted his brother's new airplane to a world record for closed-course distance flying.

After his retirement from the Air Force, Rutan's marriage to his wife, Geri, began to unravel. The couple had two daughters, Jill and Holly. Rutan left his wife shortly after he began working for the Rutan Aircraft Factory.

Voyager Aircraft Inc.

Rutan's brother began discussing the idea of building an aircraft that would circumnavigate the globe without refueling in the late 1970s. In early 1981, Rutan resigned from his position at Rutan Aircraft Factory and founded Voyager Aircraft, Inc. to prepare for the first ever around the world, non-stop, non-refueled flight in the Voyager aircraft. This aircraft would have to meet outstanding range and performance requirements, and it would have to carry two people because of the length of the flight. The Breguet Theorem is used to determine the range for long-distance flight. Developed by French aviation pioneer, Louis Breguet, the theorem states that long-distance flight requires an airplane that delivers a lot of lift, gets high gas mileage, and can carry a lot of fuel in proportion to its overall weight.

Rutan and Jeana Yeager played pivotal roles in the design, development, and construction of the airplane they would later fly. With his brother Burt, they decided to proceed with the project in 1982. They pulled together a team that would find financing for the project, and design and build the airplane.

A Sturdy Aircraft

The range for the Voyager was 28,000 statute miles. The 939-pound airplane's main cargo would be fuel, which aviators measure in terms of weight. It was to carry 8,934 pounds—nearly 41/2 tons—of 100-octane aviation fuel. That is equivalent to 1,489 gallons of fuel. The empty weight of the airplane was kept down by the exclusive use of carbon fiber construction materials. Carbon fibers are lightweight, expensive reinforcements that are used to build strong yet lightweight airframes. Because of their high cost, their uses are usually limited to high-performance aircraft.

To fly all of that fuel, Burt Rutan designed a flying fuel tank with a wingspan of 110.8 feet. The airplane had twin boom tanks that looked similar to outriggers on a canoe, canard wings, vertical stabilizers attached to the boom tanks, and tiny winglets at the end of the main wing for added stability. The twin boom tanks were designed to carry fuel, and helped to distribute the weight of the fuel over the airplane's structure.

The airplane would be powered by forward and rear-mounted propellers attached to a cigar-shaped pod in the middle of the enormous wing. The pod also would house the cockpit and a small, flat area that served as a bed for the pilot who was not in the pilot's seat.

Rutan and Yeager endured a rigorous training program to prepare for the flight. Keeping weight down was imperative because each pound added to the plane's design or to the pilot's needs would require an additional six pounds of fuel for the flight.

The Voyager Flight

On the morning of December 14, 1986, the fuel laden Voyager took off on its historic flight. The plane lost one of its winglets on takeoff, when the wing scraped the runway. The damage was determined to be minor and the flight proceeded. Nine days, three minutes, and forty-four seconds later, Rutan set the storm-battered Voyager down on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, successfully completing the six year project.

The airplane had skirted Typhoon Marge while crossing the Pacific Ocean, and maneuvered around towering storms and mountains in the middle of Africa. It had to negotiate a 90-degree banked turn to avoid thunderstorms off the coast of South America. A fuel pump failure made it lose power eight hours before it landed, but the failure quickly was accounted for, the engine was restarted, and the flight continued to its conclusion. A mechanic, checking out the plane's systems after the flight, found that any one of the numerous system failures could have terminated the flight.

The Voyager now hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's "Milestones of Flight" gallery in Washington D.C., alongside such aircraft as the Wright Brothers' first plane and Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.


Four days after the historic flight, President Ronald Reagan awarded Dick Rutan, Jeana Yeager and Burt Rutan the Presidential Citizen's Medal of Honor at a special ceremony. The medal has been presented only sixteen times in U.S. history.

Since the flight of the Voyager, Rutan has toured the world as a lecturer on his flight and on issues affecting aviation. In 1998, he and Dave Melton attempted to make the first ever flight around the world in a balloon. That attempt was ended when the hot air/helium balloon ruptured, forcing Rutan and his copilot to bail out of the crippled balloon. The entire balloon and the gondola it carried were lost and both pilots were injured, Melton seriously. Rutan pledged to try again and built a second gondola called World Quest. The World Quest project ceased when a rival team captured the milestone in March 1999.

Rutan lives Lancaster, California, with his second wife, Kris, a kindergarten teacher who has two daughters. In addition to his two daughters, Holly and Jill, Rutan has three granddaughters, Noelle, Haley and Jordan.

Further Reading

Yeager, Jeana, Dick Rutan, and Phil Patton, Voyager Alfred A.Knopf 1987. □

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