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The Voyager

Twenty-five years after the record flight

By Steve Schapiro, Senior Editor - Sport Aviation, EAA 1018168

Voyager on approach to Edwards Air Force Base, with Burt Rutan and Mike Melvill in the Beech Duchess flying chase.

Burt Rutan reunites with Jeana Yeager, and Dick Rutan after the nine-day Voyager flight.

December 22, 2011 – Friday, December 23, marks the 25th anniversary of the Voyager’s landing at Edwards Air Force Base to complete the “last first in aviation” - the first nonstop flight around the world without refueling.

Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager took off on December 14, 1986, in an aircraft Dick’s brother, Burt, designed. It was the largest all-composite aircraft ever built at the time and it took a grassroots effort to raise the money, and a small team of homebuilders led by crew chief Bruce Evans, to get the Voyager ready for the record attempt.

By all accounts, Dick and Jeana never should have made it. Problems started on the 14,200-foot takeoff roll as the fuel-laden wings bent down and the wing tips scraped along the runway before ripping off once the plane was airborne.

They had to fly around a typhoon in the Pacific and deal with towering thunderstorms and mountains over Africa, and they were tossed around by storms in the intertropical convergence zone off the coast of Brazil. There was a coolant seal leak, dropping oil pressure and rising oil temps, and a fuel transfer pump failure.

And just hours from home the engine quit. The Voyager spiraled down toward the water. Mike Melvill, Dick’s best friend, thought that was it - he would never see his friend again. Dick was able to restart the front engine and as the plane started to climb, the rear engine restarted.

Possibly the most difficult aspect of the entire flight was the human factor - Dick and Jeana were cooped up in a cabin the size of a telephone booth and had to remain alert despite the fatigue and physical toll the flight took on them.

After nine days, three minutes, and 44 seconds, Dick and Jeana completed one of the most incredible feats in aviation history - with only 18.4 gallons to spare. To read the definitive account of the flight (published February 1987) penned by former Sport Aviation Editor Jack Cox, click here.
Twenty-five years later, read what Dick, Burt, Mike, and Doug Shane had to say about the flight here (from the December 2011 issue of Sport Aviation).

Dick Rutan:
“The Voyager represented the American spirit. A handful of people - a talented designer, a pilot who thought he could do damned near anything, a copilot, Jeana, who had the will and hardheadedness to stick through it under incredible circumstances - and we just plodded through. But that’s America, and EAA promotes that type of philosophy. The set of circumstances came forth, and with the freedom that we have, that EAA has, you can go and build anything you want without some government telling you what to do. Do you know how precious that is? That is the larger meaning of the Voyager.”

Burt Rutan:
“To me the most remarkable thing, and I’m going to give you this as a designer and a flight test engineer, is the airplane ended up performing within 1 percent of the design goal. The fuel that we lost, the drag of the wingtips, and the remaining fuel, if you add them all up, it comes to a 10 percent margin. A 10 percent margin is exactly what I used as a reasonable goal when I said I’m going to design to this.”

Mike Melvill:
“It also introduced the homebuilding world to carbon fiber. … Most of us had never even heard of carbon. It was an unknown thing. And really all high-performance airplanes are all built of carbon fiber including the Dreamliner. You have to kind of point at the Voyager as being a pioneer at least in the use of carbon fiber.”

Doug Shane:
“It was a grassroots effort without corporate sponsorship. There were a lot experts and a lot of great, hard-working people from all over the country that put in their own time to make it happen. It inspired people to make those sacrifices. That to me was the greatest part of the accomplishment.”

Voyager Landing – December 23, 1986

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