Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager Pilot the First Aircraft to Fly around the World Nonstop

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Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager Pilot the First Aircraft to Fly around the World Nonstop

Overview

In December 1986 two pilots, Dick Rutan (1939-) and Jeana Yeager (1952-), landed an odd-looking aircraft called Voyager in the California desert after making the first nonstop flight around the world without refueling. The Voyager pilots spent 9 days, 3 minutes, and 44 seconds aloft in a cabin the size of a phone booth. The 25,012-mile (40,244 km) flight was the last major milestone left in aviation and was the result of six years of work. Pilot Dick Rutan and his brother Burt, Voyager's designer, intended the plane and the round-the-world flight to usher in a new era in aviation that would take advantage of novel materials and designs.

Background

The concept of an extremely efficient plane capable of flying around the world began as a sketch on a restaurant napkin when Dick Rutan first proposed the idea to his brother. The original design was of a flying fuel tank that would accommodate as much fuel as possible. Burt determined from the original napkin drawing that a typical aluminum construction for the aircraft would be too big to build, so the decision was made to use composite resin materials that would be lighter and tougher than metal and more fuel efficient.

The $2 million Voyager was built by hand over 18 months in a hangar at Mojave Airport. The money to finance the project was raised from corporations in exchange for commercial endorsements by the pilots after the flight. Money was also raised through the sale of T-shirts and other merchandise promoting the project. Volunteers helped in the construction, and materials used to build the plane were donated by corporate sponsors. The composite material that was used in the plane was a combination of carbon graphite fibers in epoxy set over a layer of woven fiberglass honeycomb. This construction was 20% lighter than aluminum and seven times as tough.

The finished plane had a 110-foot (33.5 m) wingspan and two engines, one on each end of the main fuselage. The rear engine provided most of the propulsion while the front engine was used for extra energy in climbs. The flexible wings were designed to flop by as much as 30 feet (9 m).

The Rutans developed serious doubts about the Voyager when test flights showed that it became unstable and difficult to pilot when weighted down with fuel. They did not voice their concerns to the public or aviation officials for fear their doubts could hold back the project's progress. During 350 hours of tests, the aircraft suffered seven major failures. The Voyager never flew with a full load of fuel until it took off for its flight around the world in 1986. In a July 1986 test flight along the California coast Voyager flew 11,600 miles (18,664 km) in 111 hours to break the record for the longest flight without refueling on a course beginning and ending at the same point. That record was set by pilot Bill Stephenson in 1962 when he flew a U.S. Air Force B-52 11,337 miles (18,241 km).

Dick Rutan, who was 49 years old at the time of the flight, was a highly decorated Air Force officer who had flown over 300 missions during the Vietnam War. Jeana Yeager was an accomplished pilot who held several aviation records for flight distance and speed, some of which had been held by her co-pilot, Dick Rutan. Rutan and Yeager were romantically linked during the development phase of the Voyager project, but split up several months before they piloted the flight. The two pilots had different approaches to the mission. Rutan was reportedly determined to set a milestone by completing the flight, while Yeager said that she would have been satisfied at having broken ground in aviation, even if the flight around the world was not successful.

Voyager took off on its round-the-world flight from Edwards Air Force base early in the morning of December 14, 1986. The tips of Voyager's flexible wings were damaged during takeoff as the heavy load of the full fuel tanks made them drag along the runway. More than two feet (61 cm) of the composite skin covering the wings had been torn off at takeoff. After circling the airport a few times after takeoff the team shook off the damaged wing tips and decided the aircraft could continue with the flight as planned. It was not until Voyager landed nine days later that anyone could see the extent of the damage done to the wings at takeoff. The plane climbed slowly with its full load of 1,200 gallons (545 kg) of fuel weighing 9,500 pounds (4,313 kg).

The flight was helped by unseasonably favorable tailwinds all along the flight. Those tailwinds helped Voyager conserve fuel through deviations in their course and the added wind resistance from the damaged wing tips. Voyager cruised at an altitude between 7,000 (2,134 m) and 11,000 (2,253 m) most of the time, at one point getting as high as 20,000 (6,096 m) to avoid bad weather over Africa and another time falling 3,500 feet (1,067 m) over Mexico after the rear engine stopped running.

Other problems plagued the flight. On one occasion the pilots were sickened by oxygen deprivation at high altitude and two other times they were overcome by fumes from fuel that had spilled into the cockpit. Within the tiny cabin the noise from the two engines exceeded 100 decibels, louder than what would be heard at the first row of a hard rock concert. This required the pilots to use ear plugs and an electronic noise dampening device for the cabin. To sustain the pilots, the plane carried 90 pounds (41 kg) of drinking water. Rutan and Yeager ate prepared foods, which they warmed on a heating duct inside the cabin, and also consumed liquid meals.

The team had originally planned to make their flight through the southern hemisphere, but weather conditions forced them to stay north of the equator for the trip. A team of meteorologists on the ground guided Voyager to avoid storms and take advantage of good tailwinds through the flight. Rutan flew the Voyager for about 40 of the flight's first 48 hours. After those two days the pilots adopted the planned schedule to alternate flying and rest. 12,532 miles (20,164 km) into the flight, over the Indian Ocean, Rutan and Yeager broke the record for the longest un-refueled flight in a straight line that was set in 1962 by pilot Clyde Evely in a specially designed U.S. Air Force B-52.

While flying over Africa faulty gas gauge left the pilots wondering how much fuel was left in the Voyager Fuel level readings had to be double-checked by chase planes that calculated the weight of the fuel on board Voyager by watching how the plane performed aerial maneuvers. The tests determined that Voyager had enough fuel to return to California.

Towards the end of the flight the plane was caught in bad weather over South America, and at one point Voyager was flying sideways at a 90-degree angle bank. The main engine at the rear of the aircraft shut off after crossing Central America and approaching California from the Pacific Ocean, but Rutan, who was flying at the time, was able to start it again, and the team decided to keep both engines running for the rest of the flight.

The tailwinds that helped throughout the flight allowed the plane to arrive back in California a day early, and Voyager touched down at Edwards Air Force Base on December 23, 1986, after nine days, three minutes, and 44 seconds aloft. The average speed for the 25,012-mile (40,244 km) flight was 115.8 miles (186 km) per hour, relatively slow by modern aviation standards. The two pilots were lifted out of their tiny cabin and taken to the base hospital for examination after posing for photographers with Voyager. After landing Voyager's tanks were found to have only 18 (8 kg) of the original 1,200 gallons (545 kg) of fuel left.

Impact

The aircraft now hangs in the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Voyager's flight marked the first time since the Second World War that a major aviation milestone was set by a non-military aircraft and with private funding. After the flight the two pilots, Rutan and Yeager, went their separate ways, though they appeared together to fulfill their commitment to endorse the companies that made contributions to the Voyager project. Rutan made an unsuccessful attempt to run for the House of Representatives, during which Yeager endorsed his opponent.

Rutan meant for the development of Voyager, as well as its flight, to inaugurate a new era in aviation. The flight demonstrated the possibilities of non-conventional design and construction to satisfy fields of aviation. Rutan compared the construction of Voyager to the revolution that occurred in the 1930s when aluminum replaced wood and canvas as the dominant construction material for airplanes. The applications of long-duration flight are now being explored in communications technology. Experiments with unmanned computer-controlled aircraft powered by solar energy are examining the possibilities of using high-altitude aircraft to replace space-based satellites in orbit. Such planes would maintain a constant circling pattern over their service area to relay telecommunication signals at less cost than orbiting satellites. An experimental version of these planes over Hawaii has set the record for the most time aloft of any aircraft ever.

A California company hopes to bring composite-built jets to consumers. It is conducting tests of a vertical takeoff and landing jet designed for general use. The company hopes someday it will be used with a computer-guided flight system to make the planes easy enough to fly so that they could replace the family car.

GEORGE SUAREZ

Further Reading

Books

Yeager, Jeana and Dick Rutan with Phil Patton. Voyager. New York : Knopf, 1987.

Norris, Jack. Voyager: The World Flight: The Official Log,Flight Analysis and Narrative Explanation of the Record around the World Flight of the Voyager Aircraft. Northridge, CA.: J. Norris, 1988.

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Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager Pilot the First Aircraft to Fly around the World Nonstop

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