What a grand Christmas gift it was—the "last first" in aviation, a nonstop flight around the world on the gossamer wings of one of the strangest looking craft ever built. Voyager, made of paper, graphite and resin, was a cross between a glider and a graphite fishing rod and it looked like the result of the mating of a seagull and a pterodactyl. The pilots were Dick Rutan, 48, a Vietnam War flying ace, and Jeana Yeager, 34, a gentle but steely Texan who never talks when she can be doing. Flying Voyager, said Yeager, was like riding on the back of an eagle.
Voyager slammed, bounced and flapped for some 26,000 lonely, tense miles in nine days and nights, plus 3 minutes and 44 seconds. It had departed during an almost full moon, which would follow the plane the whole way, and it returned last week to a glimmering dry lake bed near the runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., where it had taken off. The flight elevated its pilots to a lofty spot in aviation history.
Rutan's reverence for the moon and its powers approaches the mystical, and he credits Voyager's good fortune to the moon's company during the flight. But he carried his own fighter pilot's luck—he was pushing it, he realized, and was counting on it. And his copilot brought her own special talents. There's an angel perched on the shoulder of Jeana Yeager's extra-small leather flying jacket, and it took the full ride.
On the night before takeoff, the clear desert sky rained an omen of meteors—the Geminids, as many as 50 per hour—while Dick and Jeana slept; he in quarters at Edwards, she in the house they share in Mojave, Calif. At takeoff, with a gross weight of 9,750 pounds—the plane itself weighs a mere 1,858 pounds—Rutan was already exploring the unknown: The heaviest Voyager had weighed during 66 test flights was 8,600 pounds.
January 5, 1987
Full of fuel for the first time, Voyager's wings bowed like a branch with a bear on the end. Their tips began to drag as Voyager accelerated, and the ground crew was one breath away from ordering an abort. "I was absolutely certain they were going to crash off the end of the runway," said project engineer Mike Melvill, whom Rutan would call for advice and guidance over the next nine days. "I could see the big ball of flames."
But finally, after using up 14,000 feet of Edwards's 15,000-foot runway—the world's longest—Voyager lifted, along with thousands of hearts, its wingtips now bending upward and carrying it skyward.
Then Rutan discovered that the vertical winglets had been damaged by the scraping, and were falling off. But they were not critical to control, so he and Yeager strapped on their parachutes and he pitched Voyager from side to side and broke each winglet off before it could peel off by itself and possibly strip the skin off the wings.
Late that night Rutan and Yeager were 7,000 feet over the Pacific, on the way to Hawaii, soaring along at a ground speed of 154 mph with the assistance of a 33-knot tailwind. They were up. And they were staying up.
Rutan remained in the pilot's seat for Voyager's first 36 hours in the air—once grabbing a three-hour nap—as Jeana monitored the autopilot and other instruments from the off-duty pilot's space, which was 7.5 feet long, 2 feet wide and 14 inches high. She hadn't expected equal flying time: Rutan's 7,000 career hours dwarfed her 1,000, and he was of neither the right size nor temperament to endure the copilot's lot during turbulence. But the amount of time he would spend in the seat—nearly 85% of the flight—surprised even her. Rutan would continue at a seemingly superhuman pace, fueled by adrenaline, obsession and necessity, as Yeager performed the flight engineer's duties, not getting much more sleep than he.
"The best weather is behind us," announced chief meteorologist Len Snellman on Monday, the day after Voyager's takeoff. So soon. Snellman was referring to the threat posed by tropical storm Marge, which was on a swirling course that had it colliding with Voyager that night over the southwestern Pacific. Snellman vectored Voyager as close to Marge's outside winds as the crew could stand, in order to give the plane a boost from its 30-knot tailwinds. "Shooting the curl," it was called. For nearly 12 hours, Rutan and Yeager did just that.
"This is the only airplane I've ever flown that I have a basic feeling of insecurity in," Rutan said before the flight. "It's got some real strange flying qualities, because range was the only worn, design consideration. In the early test flights it took a lot of courage just to get in the thing."
After 58 hours of flying, Rutan had been in the pilot's seat for all but five hours, and mission control was begging him to crawl in the back and get some sleep. He obliged, but an hour later was back flying Voyager, and the ground crew got testy with him. Tired of being badgered and too busy dodging thunderstorms to waste time deciphering increasingly scratchy radio communications, Rutan took the phone off the hook, so I to speak, and simply stopped communicating.
Fears that fatigue had stolen his judgment swept through mission control, which was in a trailer near Hangar 77 at Mojave Airport. Said Melvill, "Richard Rutan is probably the singularly most unpredictable person I've ever known. He does exactly what he wants to do." But was Rutan still flying the airplane? "We don't know," replied Melvill. "No one has the guts to ask him."
But the only crisis had been on the ground. Said Rutan: "They wanted me to take more time off and have Jeana do more flying. But Jeana didn't have the opportunity to be trained as well as she should have, and I knew that the flying was really going to be on my shoulders for the first three days, when the plane was real heavy. So I just stayed in the seat. The thing is, it was really my mission. I'm the guy who's been flying all my life, I've been the test pilot, I've been around that stuff for a long time. It had to be a pilot-copilot relationship."
"I knew that was going to happen," said Yeager. "We were fine, up there in the clouds. Dick wasn't getting a lot of sleep, but he was getting more than he realized, because he would nap in the seat while I monitored the equipment. It was uncomfortable, but I could do it."
Finally, after nearly 72 hours in the seat, Rutan crawled in back and slept. Yeager flew through the night, across the mountains and valleys of the Philippines. She watched lightning flash, and stayed as low as possible in order to catch tailwinds and conserve fuel.
At the next morning's press briefing in Hangar 77, Burt Rutan, Dick's brother and the designer of Voyager, who at 43 had become a grandfather that day, announced that the plane was somehow missing 700 pounds of fuel. The figures Voyager was reporting on fuel flow didn't jibe with his own calculations.
Burt served as the flight's performance engineer, and his daily fuel report developed into an up-again down-again mystery almost impossible to solve because only one of Voyager's 17 fuel tanks was equipped with a gauge. The 24 hours it took to cross the Indian Ocean were easy, and the next day Burt reported that he believed the missing 700 pounds were there after all. Fatigue and relentless jouncing could easily have caused Jeana to record an incorrect number in the plane's fuel log, he said. Africa was next for Voyager, and when he saw the first satellite photographs of the continent, Snellman said, "If I could rub Africa off the earth for a while, I would." It held nothing but heartache: an apparent wall of thunderstorms 70,000 feet high, over mountains of 14,000 feet. Worse, Voyager would arrive in the heat of the day, when things rumble. The sky was clear to the north, but the ground was hostile, preventing Voyager's passage over countries such as Chad and Ethiopia. "That's all we would need, some yo-yo to shoot us down," Rutan said.
That was nearly a moot issue. "If you don't find me some fuel," Dick radioed to Burt, "I'll be landing on the west coast of Africa."
"It was my lowest moment," Dick would say later.
But Burt had done more data crunching, using new information that had been gathered by a chase plane over central Africa. During that rendezvous, Voyager performed a series of maneuvers to help determine its weight. Burt radioed, "Dick, you've got fuel to cross the Atlantic," and Voyager's, harrowing next 18 hours were under way.
All that night, the ground crew's weathermen were glued to their satellite pictures while Dick Rutan's own eyes were glued to his radar screen. He picked his way through storms, climbing as high as 20,000 feet and breaking out the oxygen. At one point he was not heard from for nearly five hours, from 10:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. Said the meteorologist on duty, Larry Burch, "If he goes down now, we'll never hear from him."
Suddenly Voyager radioed. "Where am I?" asked Rutan, sounding confused and dazed. "Where am I?" Before mission control could answer, there came the cackle of a practiced practical joker. "I'm out of Africa, babe," Rutan said. "I'm out of Africa and we're heading home. We're two people just sitting here crying as hard as I've ever cried before."
Jeana and Dick didn't have long to enjoy their tears of relief, however. Soon after they reached the Atlantic, where the air was supposed to be calm, he called for help. "I'm in severe turbulence. How do I get out of it?" But it was almost too late for an answer. The sky was tossing Voyager harder than it had ever been thrown. "I could see the airplane rolling almost to inverted," Rutan would say. "I thought the mission would probably end right there."
"We ran through one or two bad spots," said Yeager. "We were right on the edge of losing it. The plane made about a 90-degree bank angle. Fortunately, Dick was in the seat. With his reflexes and natural ability he did the right things, and we came out right side up. But we could have easily flipped on over, and disintegrated right there."
"I felt like I was in a continual gauntlet during the flight," said Rutan. "Every time we came into a different stage, we just got beat up until we were almost done for. But the gods would say, 'O.K., you've suffered enough.' and they'd let us out. They'd let you run a little while, and they'd say, 'O.K., we got another one for you."
Day 7 began for the ground crew with a 4 a.m. call from Voyager. "Sorry about getting you up so early in the morning, but it's high noon out here," said Rutan. His oil pressure warning light was on, and the rear engine of the two-engine plane was getting hot. Jeana scrambled back and added oil, but it took half an hour for the engine to stabilize. Meanwhile, Rutan called in his coordinates, so that his position would be known if Voyager went down. His voice was free of alarm, but his stomach wasn't. "Any time you give a lot of coordinates, you know you're in deep trouble," he said.
The gods weren't through yet. Twelve hours later, across the Atlantic and off the coast of Brazil, Voyager was surrounded by a snaking finger of clouds containing violent storms. The turbulence was even worse than the earlier tossing. "The weather was flying the airplane," said Burt. "I think Dick was just trying to keep it from going down."
Voyager would have to fend off one last shot. This time, off the west coast of Mexico the rear engine died altogether. Since the front engine had been shut down most of the time since three days into the flight in order to save fuel, that meant they were free-falling. Jeana scrambled for the emergency procedure checklists, as Dick tried to restart the rear engine.
"Meanwhile, we were getting closer and closer to the ocean," she said with a light laugh, "and it was night out. It was real exciting there for a while. It was probably just a few seconds, but it seemed like forever."
Voyager kept losing altitude in the dark silence. Rutan had to point the nose down because the rear engine had no electric starter and the prop needed the force of the wind to spin over. Stubbornly, it refused to refire. Melvill was on the other end of the radio.
"Dick just started calmly calling off altitude," he recalled. "I'm thinking he's going to disappear off the radio and we're never going to see him again, and all he's saying is, '8,500...8,200...7,800.' He never raised his voice, never got excited. It was incredible. It absolutely blew me away. I just broke down after that."
"I guess it was the most panicked time of the flight," said Jeana, who had been reading the checklists to Dick during the crisis. "But Dick handled it outstanding. He really did. And the scare actually served a good purpose. It pumped in enough adrenaline to keep his senses alert the rest of the way."
Eventually, after dropping from 8,500 feet to 5,000, Rutan gave up on the rear engine and fired up the front, which was ornery starting as well. After some plumbing work, the rear engine came back, and the torture of the gods would be over. Still, Rutan was cautioned that it wasn't over until the fat lady sings. "Yeah, but she's putting on her girdle," he said.
Then it was up the coast and home. Voyager landed with about four gallons of gas in its main tank, and a few more in the canard (the front-mounted stabilizer), which they hadn't been able to tap into anyway. "Just about enough to get to Sacramento," said Rutan.
Voyager is expected to be flown to Washington to be displayed in the Milestones of Flight Gallery at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Its success represents more than a fulfilled personal challenge. It might have been the preview of an age of composite structure in aviation. No matter what's next for Dick and Burt Rutan and Jeana Yeager, they've accomplished one thing: They've made us all believe in paper airplanes.