“Impossible is just a word. If you dream it, you can do it, if you don’t quit.” Irene Rutan
December 23, 1986 – Edwards Air Force Base, Mojave Desert, California: The odd-looking aircraft circled the airport four times before landing at 8:06 a.m. More than 23,000 spectators gathered to greet the Voyager with a hero’s welcome. Pilot Dick Rutan and co-pilot Jeana Yeager crawled out of the cramped phone-booth-size cockpit.
They had just flown around the world non-stop without refueling in nine days and 3 minutes – a total of 25,012 miles. It was a flight most considered impossible and a significant milestone in aviation history.
Seven years earlier, Dick Rutan, 41, and his brother, Burt, 36, met for lunch at a local restaurant. Burt doodled a peculiar-looking airplane on a napkin and suggested, “Dick, I think it might be possible to fly a plane around the world, non-stop, without refueling.” Then he shoved the napkin across the table to his brother.
Surprised, Dick responded, “Burt, that’s impossible! The B-52 holds the record at 11,000 miles without refueling. You’re telling me you can more than double that distance?”
Burt persisted, “I think it’s possible using the new carbon graphite fiber.” Dick shrugged, “We build unusual airplanes in a small town in the desert.” He paused. “But I tell you what, Burt, if you design and build it, I’ll fly it around the world.”
When Dick was 9 years old, his mother, Irene, scraped together a few dollars and paid for a short flight for him with a local Cessna pilot. Dick caught the aviation bug that day. After high school, he joined the Air Force and became a highly decorated F-100 fighter pilot who flew more than 300 missions during the Vietnam War.
Brother Burt also caught aviation fever. By 8, he was designing and building model airplanes. After earning a B.S. in aeronautical engineering from California Polytechnic Institute, he worked for several aviation companies before starting his own aircraft design company. The Rutan Aircraft Factory in Mojave became known as a manufacturer of unconventional aircraft. Burt designed unusual airplanes, and Dick was the test pilot.
A week after their restaurant discussion, Burt developed his initial design for the Voyager. The plane had a 110-foot wingspan and two engines, one on each end of the fuselage. It had a tiny cockpit in the middle of the fuselage. The carbon graphite construction was 20% lighter than aluminum and seven times as strong. The gigantic wings stored 1500 gallons of fuel, just enough if Burt calculated correctly.
It took four years of begging for donations and construction materials. Most corporations turned them down. It was too much of a long shot. Burt, Dick, Jeana, a record-setting pilot, and a team of volunteers built the plane by hand in Hangar 77 at the Mojave airport. Then Dick flight tested the airplane for 18 months. The longest flight was five days without refueling. On seven test flights the plane experienced serious malfunctions, causing the brothers to be concerned about their chances. But they had come too far to quit.
Early Wednesday morning, December 14, 1986, Voyager was ready. Dick and Jeana sat in the cockpit, praying, wondering if they would return. It was the first time the plane was fully fueled. On take-off, the heavy fuel tanks caused the flexible wings to drag along the runway until the plane eventually lifted off.
The Voyager flew like a crane with flexible wings. It cruised at 115 miles per hour at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Thunderstorms over Africa forced the plane to 20,000 feet on several occasions. They flew 600 extra miles around Guam to avoid Typhoon Marge.
There were plenty of mechanical problems during the flight. The fuel gage failed over Africa, leaving the pilots to worry if they had enough fuel. There was an engine coolant issue and oxygen systems fluctuations to deal with. There was little sleep and extreme fatigue. They flew on.
Over Mexico, eight hours from Mohave, Voyager was caught in a thunderstorm. The rear engine cut off and stalled for five minutes. The plane dropped to 3,500 feet before Dick, heart in his throat, got the engine restarted.
Dick and Jeana were overcome with emotion when they saw the huge crowd lining the runway. They had done it with 12 gallons of fuel to spare. Today Dick and Burt Rutan’s Voyager hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum alongside Wilbur and Orville Wright’s 1903 Flyer and Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis. It is a tribute to innovation, courage and a refusal to quit.