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
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 kilometres) 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
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, non-stop, 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
fibreglass. 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 manoeuvre 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 manoeuvring 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 kilometres
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 non-stop, 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
Honour, which had been awarded only 16 times previously.
They also received the Collier Trophy, aviation's highest
honour, 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 team-mate 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, non-stop. 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
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."
- Voyager's flight was the
first-ever, non-stop, unrefuelled flight around the world.
It took place between December 14 and December 23, 1986.
- This milestone flight took
9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds.
- The absolute world
distance records set during that flight remained
- The flight was 26,366
statute miles, which more than doubled the previous record
set by a B52 Bomber in 1962. (The FAI accredited distance
at 40,212 km).
- The structural weight of
the Voyager Aircraft was only 939 pounds.
- When the airplane took off
full of fuel, pilots and supplies, the gross take off
weight was 9,694.5 pounds.
- The average altitude flown
was about 11,000 feet.
- The Voyager took off from
and landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
- There were two crew
members on board, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager.
- Dick's brother, Burt Rutan,
who is a world-renowned airplane designer, designed the
- The Voyager was built in
Mojave, California. It took five years to build and test
the airplane before taking off on its remarkable
- There were 99 ground
volunteers that participated in the flight with weather,
communications, fabrication, office staff, gift shop staff
- Primarily individual
contributions, and a few product equipment sponsors
financed the Voyager. The project did not receive any
- Four days after landing,
President Ronald Reagan presented the Voyager crew and it's
designer with the Presidential Citizenship Medal, awarded
only 16 times previously in history.
- The Voyager Aircraft is on
permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution's National
Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.