In the early 20th century, especially the period between the two World Wars, aviation was just emerging as a brand-new field of human endeavor, and nearly every record you could think of remained to be broken. The furtive early distance and endurance records fell pretty quickly, and then in 1927 Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic non-stop for the first time (although he was very nearly beaten by some French aviators). The ultimate record was Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier in 1947. After that, with the focus on aviation turning heavenwards toward space, there didn’t seem to be many terrestrial aviation barriers left. But there was one, and it fell on this day 28 years ago, December 23, 1986: the first non-stop, un-refueled flight around the world, and the aircraft that did it was called the Rutan Voyager, or simply Voyager.
The story of this last, seemingly almost impossible record began five years earlier in 1981, when pilots Jeana Yeager (no relation to Chuck), Dick Rutan and his brother Burt hatched the idea for the non-stop flier while over lunch one day. Burt was the real expert on these things, having been an aircraft designer for military applications and then turning in the 1970s to designing planes for amateur homebuilders. Instead of being a blockbuster plane with huge engines, Yeager and the Rutans envisioned a super light propeller-driven plane that would use very little fuel. Great idea, but this was still a huge engineering task. In 1984 the Rutans had their basic prototype, and after some fine-tuning the pretty much final design was ready in November 1985.
Here is actual footage of the Voyager’s takeoff in December 1986, where you can see the drooping wings and the damage to them.
After a number of test flights the Rutan Voyager set off on its historic journey on December 14, 1986. The take-off (and hoped-for landing) field was the super-long runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The attempt almost went awry at the very beginning. Voyager had never been flown with a full load of fuel, and its almost paper-thin wings drooped on the ground on takeoff, breaking off pieces of them. Although troubling, this wasn’t fatal to the flight, and after almost 3 miles of taxiing the strange-looking plane finally made it into the air.
It was by no means a sure thing that Voyager would complete its flight. In fact, several times things looked pretty grim. Rutan and Yeager found the process of flying the plane much more exhausting than they anticipated. They were supposed to take 3-hour shifts, but as it happened they each ended up spending days at the controls. Moammar Qaddafi, Libyan dictator who was hostile to Americans after the U.S. attacked his country earlier in 1986, refused permission for the plane to fly over Libyan airspace. At one point the flight plan was diverted to avoid a typhoon. Then, just as California came into sight in the final hours of the flight, one of the fuel pumps failed. Thankfully this didn’t happen earlier. At this point in the mission it was a survivable calamity. Voyager had been aloft for nearly 9 days.
With her historic flight in the Voyager, Jeana Yeager joined the ranks of Amelia Earhart and Katherine Stinson in the ranks of American women who have pushed the envelope of aviation.
At 8:06 AM Pacific time on December 23, 1986, Voyager swooped in for a landing on the same field at Edwards where it had taken off. I remember when this happened, and in fact was watching live on TV. The successful landing of the plane retired one of the last “first” records in aviation history. After nine grueling days in the air, a plane had flown around the Earth, crossing the Equator twice, without refueling or touching ground at any time. This was a record Lindbergh or Chuck Yeager could only dream of. And it was an illustration of something I pointed out earlier this week, that even in our shrinking world ruled by technology and where we think everything’s been done, epic adventures are still possible on planet Earth.
Rutan Voyager only made one flight, and no other planes of this type were ever produced. The one and only Voyager today resides in the National Air and Space Museum, alongside Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and the original Wright flyer. I’m not sure what superlative aviation records still remain unbroken, but the odyssey of Voyager was certainly among the last.