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Around the world in the Rutan Voyager

The physical and mental stress the two pilots endured during the nineday flight, is unimaginable as they faced mechanical problems, severe weather as well as extremely cramped quarters

Issue: 12-2021By Joseph Noronha

In 1986, the Rutan Model 76 Voyager became the first aircraft to fly successfully around the world non-stop and without refuelling. It was flown by Dick Rutan, a former fighter pilot and test pilot of the United States Air Force and Jeana Yeager, a record-setting pilot in her own right. The flight was approved by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). It took off from Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert and ended at the same place nine days, three minutes and 44 seconds later. In the process, it set eight world-class records, including a new flight endurance record. The unique aircraft which was built almost entirely of light weight graphite-honeycomb composite materials, flew Westerly 42,432 km at an average altitude of 3,350m. The FAI accredited distance was 40,212 km.

It all began as a sketch on the back of a napkin as Dick, his younger brother Burt, a famous aircraft designer and Jeana sat at lunch. The remarkable aircraft had to be light enough for maximum efficiency, yet strong enough to sustain extremely long-distance flight. It would also require a huge amount of fuel to fly around the globe without refuelling.

Construction of the Voyager began in the summer of 1982, mainly by 99 enthusiastic volunteers working with the Rutan Aircraft Factory and Voyager Aircraft. Burt selected a twin-engine, both Continental piston engines – one pusher and one tractor, canard-configured design. The pusher engine would run continuously, the tractor only for takeoff and initial climb to altitude. The first flight happened on June 22, 1984. The airframe weighed only 425 kg and was constructed without any metal. The long, thin wing was so flexible that its tip deflected upward 0.9 to 1.5m in flight. With the engines included, the un-laden weight of the plane was 1,020 kg. However, when fully loaded for flight, it weighed 4,397.4 kg due to the copious amount of fuel. The structural weight/gross weight fraction was just nine per cent – significantly lower than any existing human-rated airplane. It was constructed virtually as a flying fuel tank and included 17 small tanks. It was equipped with Hartzell constant-speed, variable pitch aluminium propellers that proved to be a critical factor in stretching the aircraft’s range to the extreme required.

The pair of Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager began their historic flight at 8:01 am local time on December 14, 1986, with 3,500 of the world’s press in attendance. However, their problems began during the takeoff itself. As the Voyager gained speed, the tips of the wings that were heavily loaded with fuel, unexpectedly flexed, scraped the runway and sustained damage. The plane accelerated agonisingly slowly and traversed approximately 4,300m of the 4,600m runway to gain enough speed for lift-off. Following an aerial inspection, Burt Rutan decided that the damaged aircraft was still within its performance specifications and permitted the flight to continue. The two broken winglets were later dislodged by manoeuvring.

The pilots then followed a route determined by weather, wind and geography, and it included two passes over the Equator. The ideal altitude for fuel economy was 2,400m but they had to fly as high as 6,250m over Africa to avoid thunderstorms. Over the Pacific, they were guided by meteorologists through the edges of Typhoon Marge to obtain a “slingshot effect” from tailwinds. They encountered another violent storm over the Atlantic at night. Each time they had to fly around a storm or climb above one, they burned more fuel. Since the Voyager had started with a very tight fuel allotment, they grew increasingly worried that that they might not have enough fuel to complete their journey. Just hours from their destination, they faced a final emergency when the rear engine stopped due to fuel starvation. They managed to restart the engine losing 1,500m of altitude in the process and levelling off at just 1,067m. The plane returned safely to its starting point on December 23, 1986, in front of 55,000 cheering spectators and a large press contingent. Only 48 kg of fuel remained in the tanks, about 1.5 per cent of the amount at takeoff.

The physical and mental stress the two pilots endured during the nine-day flight, is unimaginable as they faced mechanical problems, severe weather as well as extremely cramped quarters. While one pilot flew the plane, navigated, maintained ground communication and transferred fuel to balance the airplane, the other rested, managed the logistics support tasks and provided navigation and flight-monitoring assistance. Although they became very fatigued, both were in remarkably good shape at the end of the flight.

For this epic achievement, the Rutan brothers, Jeana Yeager and crew chief Bruce Evans received the 1986 Collier Trophy. A similar feat has since been accomplished only once, in March 2006, by Steve Fossett flying the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, also designed by Burt Rutan.