In December of 1986 Jeana Yeager (born 1952) became the first woman to fly an airplane nonstop around the world without refueling. She and fellow pilot Dick Rutan made history when their specially built aircraft, Voyager, became the first airplane to completely circle the globe on one load of fuel. The journey took nine days.
Jeana Yeager was born on May 18, 1952, in Fort Worth, Texas. Despite her last name, she bears no relation to fellow aviation pioneer Chuck Yeager, who was the first to fly faster than the speed of sound. She grew up in a small town near Dallas, Texas, where one of her parents worked as a school teacher. Early hobbies for Yeager included horseback riding and running track, but she also developed an early interest in helicopters. Yeager studied drafting in high school, a skill that would prove extremely valuable in her later project to design the first-round-the-world aircraft. When Yeager was 19, she married a police officer, but the two were divorced after five years of marriage.
Retained Childhood Fascination with 'Copters
In 1977 Yeager left her failing marriage and settled in Santa Rosa, California. There she worked as a draftsman and surveyor for an energy company specializing in geothermal energy. In 1978, at age 26, she earned her private pilot's license, her ultimate goal being to learn to fly helicopters.
Yeager first became involved in the world of experimental aerospace design when she met Bob Truax at about the same time that she received her pilot's license. Truax was a rocket scientist who was attempting to develop a fully reusable spacecraft—something that had never been accomplished—at a company called Project Private Enterprise. Truax hired Yeager to work at his company as a draftswoman.
Conceived of a Pioneering Voyage
While attending an air show in Chino, California, in 1980 Yeager met fellow pilot Dick Rutan along with Rutan's brother, Burt Rutan, an aircraft designer. Dick Rutan, who had flown combat missions in the Vietnam war and was 14 years older than Yeager, was a featured acrobatic flyer at the show. At the time he held the title of chief test pilot for Burt Rutan's aircraft company, based in California's Mojave desert. Yeager and Dick Rutan fell in love, and in the early 1980s Yeager moved to the desert to work as a pilot for Burt Rutan's company, Flying Rutan aircraft, There she set new speed records for a woman pilot.
One day while dining at a restaurant, Yeager and the Rutan brothers conceived a plan to make the first nonstop airplane flight around the world without refueling. Burt Rutan mentioned that the lightweight composite materials out of which he built his planes could easily break distance records. Yeager and Dick Rutan suggested that they try to break the then-current record, which stood at 12,500 miles and had been set by a B-52 bomber in the early 1960s. Burt Rutan said he was confident that he could build a plane that could cover twice that distance, which happened to be about the distance around the world.
Yeager and the Rutans began their project in earnest in 1981. Deciding to make the first-round-the world, nonstop airplane flight was one thing; getting the funds with which to do it was another. Yeager and the Rutans formed the Voyager project for this purpose, but it was not until Yeager started a fundraising program that money started to come in. In fact that program was the major source of funding for Voyager. The project received no funding from the U.S. government, and Yeager, on speaking tours after her historic flight, cited the project as an example of what is possible with enough determination.
It was Yeager who named the project and the airplane that would result: Voyager. She also drafted the plane's engineering drawings. She ran the business operation that kept the project afloat financially. Turning down sponsorship offered by a tobacco company—Yeager and Rutan are both opposed to smoking—and from a Japanese company because they felt the project should remain entirely American, Yeager and the Voyager team subsisted largely on donations from private individuals in the early days.
Gave Birth to Voyager
The project to design, fund, build, and test-fly the round-the-world aircraft Voyager took five years. Two of those years were required to build the craft after it had been designed. The project also required two million dollars in funding. The plane was hand-built by a team of volunteers, who collectively put in 22,000 hours of effort. Some materials and equipment were donated by various aircraft systems manufacturers.
At the end of it, the plane was built that could do the job. The experiment known as Voyager was able to carry several times its weight in fuel, had a wingspan of 110 feet—longer than that of a Boeing 727 airliner—and a cockpit no bigger than a telephone booth. Loaded with all the fuel needed to make the round-the-world flight, it was inherently unsafe, referred to even by its designers as a flying bomb. It was also extremely difficult to fly. Unstable in the air, it required constant attention to keep it aloft. It was powered by two engines, one in front to pull the aircraft forward in flight, and the other in the back to push. Built of a graphite composite known by the brand name Magnamite, the plane's only metal was contained in its engines and a few nuts and bolts.
Before Voyager could take off, however, it had to be loaded with enough fuel to travel around the world nonstop: more than 1,200 gallons. This feat was made possible because of the advanced structural materials—very strong and very light—with which the plane had been built.
Voyager took off from Edwards Air Force base in California on December 14, 1986. The plane was so heavy on takeoff that its wings scraped the ground as it gathered sufficient speed for take-off. The wing tips were damaged, but not enough to abort the flight.
Yeager, then 34 years old, had undergone extensive training in ocean navigation and communications before the trip, and she acted as the copilot and main navigator, flying the plane while Dick Rutan slept. Other preparations Yeager made for the flight included taking an Air Force water-survival training course. She was one of the first civilians to complete this extremely difficult course. She also qualified for a commercial pilot's license, as well as multi-engine and instrument ratings.
Voyager traveled at an average speed of 115.8 miles per hour. Its flight path took it from California across the Pacific and Indian oceans, across Africa, and on across the Atlantic before crossing the United States to its point of take-off. The flight was not without its perils. At one point, storms became so severe that Yeager and Rutan seriously considered abandoning their round-the-world attempt and landing. Forced to run both engines to avoid a typhoon four days into the journey, the pilots feared they had used up too much fuel to make it all the way around the world.
Near the end of the flight, the rear engine suddenly quit. Because the front engine had been turned off to save fuel, the plane dropped quickly from 8,500 to 5,000 feet before the front engine could be restarted. The failure of the rear engine was later attributed to air pockets in the fuel lines that fed the engine from the plane's 17 fuel tanks.
Loud engine noise was Yeager and Rutan's constant companion, and Yeager ended the flight with permanent hearing damage. The pair slept very little, managing only 3 1/2 hours or so of sleep each night. Other dangers included oxygen deprivation and the constant battering the pilots took as the plane's uneven flight tossed them against the sides of the cockpit.
Landed in History Books after Nine Days
Nine days after it had taken off—a total of 116 hours in the air— Voyager landed at Edwards Air Force base the morning of December 23, 1986. Yeager and Rutan had traveled 28,000 miles, landing them solidly in the record books with eight gallons of fuel to spare, enough to have taken them only another 100 miles. By flying around the world Voyager almost doubled the previous endurance record, which had been set in 1962. "It's the last 'first' in aviation," Rutan radioed as his and Yeager's flight neared its end, according to Michael Specter in the Washington Post. "I have to admit there have been times during the flight when I didn't think it was possible."
After Voyager landed, the first person to approach the craft was a representative from the National Aeronautics Association (NAA). The representative checked seals and other devices on the cockpit and landing gear to verify that the plane had not touched down since its takeoff nine days earlier. The NAA subsequently certified that the plane had, in fact, broken the world record for a nonstop flight.
Thousands of spectators greeted Yeager and Rutan after they landed, and the two exhausted pilots sat atop the craft's fuselage and answered questions. They then climbed into separate ambulances so that they could be taken to a hospital at the Air Force base for medical evaluation.
President Ronald Reagan reacted to news of the flight with enthusiasm and invited Yeager and Rutan to meet him in Los Angeles the following week. At their meeting, Reagan presented Yeager and Rutan with the Presidential Citizen's Metal in recognition of their feat. Yeager and Rutan, along with their colleagues on the Voyager project, were later awarded the prestigious Collier Trophy for aviation.
Rebuilt Lives after Historic Flight
Voyager had reached the end of its own endurance; while the plane was being flown from the landing field at Edwards Air Force Base back to its hanger in Mojave, California, the seal for its coolant system became permanently damaged. The craft was eventually donated to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where it was put on display along with other pioneering air and spacecraft, including Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and the Apollo 11 command module that took the first astronauts to the moon.
Following their flight, Yeager and Rutan traveled around the world again, this time at a more leisurely pace as they spoke about their experience. These appearances helped them raise money to pay back the debts they had incurred in connection with their pioneering flight. These debts were estimated to be in the neighborhood of $250,000.
Yeager and Rutan's relationship disintegrated in the aftermath of their historic flight. Yeager would later trace the erosion of their relationship to the very thing that had brought them together: their shared love of flight. Each intensely motivated and driven by their dreams, they competed for control not only of the aircraft they flew together, but of their relationship.
Speaking of life after Voyager to John May of the Guardian, Yeager said she was ready to take on new challenges, including developing a science museum and thriving "on doing things that are new and exciting for me. I enjoy learning and finding out, figuring out, planning, organizing. For me that is fun."
Christian Science Monitor, December 30, 1986.
Guardian, March 2, 1988.
New York Times, December 24, 1986.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 11, 1991.
Toronto Star, December 28, 1986.
Washington Post, December 24, 1986.
"Jeana Yeager," Edwards Air Force Base Web site,http://www.edwards.af.mil (March 17, 2003).
"Jeana Yeager," Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum,http://www.nasm.edu (March 17, 2003).
"Voyager Aircraft Return from Non-stop Trip around the World," National Air and Space Administration Web site,http://www.dfrc.nasa.gov (March 17, 2003). □