On December 23, 1986, nine days, three minutes, and 44 seconds after taking off, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager touched down at Edwards Air Force Base, CA, in the Rutan Voyager aircraft to finish the first flight around the world made without landing or refueling. Rutan’s brother Burt had designed Voyager but it was the availability of carbon-fibers coated with epoxy allowing Burt to design an airframe that could lift more than ten times its flying weight (including 3,180 kg, 7,011 lb, of fuel) that made the flight even possible. The ultra lightweight airframe, advanced technology propellers and engines, state-of-the-art navigation equipment, and a command center on the ground to radio continuous updates on the weather did little to make the flight comfortable for the crew. Dick and Jeana had to take turns sitting at the controls in the cockpit and lying down in the “cabin” which is only .4 m (7 ft 6 in) long and about .6 m (2 ft) in diameter. At least one engine was always operating and even earphones designed to cancel the noise hardly quieted the din.
Along with the incredible physical challenge was the constantly changing weather they faced as they made their way around the world. In the end, Voyager performed flawlessly except for four minutes when the rear engine quit due to a fuel problem. It was considered the “last” great aircraft record and indeed brothers Burt and Dick Rutan, and Jeana Yeager won the Collier Trophy, aviation’s most prestigious award, for the accomplishment.
Russ Lee is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.