Edwards AFB Civil Air Patrol Composite Squadron 84 Cadets were visited by famous aviator Dick Rutan at their weekly meeting June 24.
“I am Dick Rutan and I flew around the world,” said Rutan. He then told his story from the beginning, growing up in Northern California, the son of a dentist and a World War II Navy veteran. It was in his teen years that Rutan learned to ride motorcycles and fly airplanes. At 19 years old, Rutan’s father sent him to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, to become an aviation cadet.
Rutan considered it an honor to join the Air Force, he wanted to distinguish himself as a combat pilot. He admired pilots who flew bombers in World War II despite their high loss rate. For every four pilots sent out, only one would return from the skies over Nazi Germany.
“How in the world do you get back in an airplane the next day and do it again,” Rutan would ask himself. “I can’t imagine that human beings could have that kind of courage.”
Then he began to ask himself if he could have that kind of courage. On his first combat mission he realized that someone else had “the audacity” to shoot at him.
“That very instant will define you as a warrior,” said Rutan. And for him, being a warrior was very addictive. In fact, Rutan flew 325 combat missions in Vietnam as a tactical air command fighter pilot. Of those missions, 105 were as a member of a high-risk, classified operation known as the “MISTY’s.” The MISTY’s flew F-100 Super Sabres in strike reconnaissance missions.
On his final strike reconnaissance mission in 1968, Rutan was hit by enemy ground fire and forced to eject from his burning F-100. He escaped enemy capture and was later rescued.
His next experience with combat would be during the Cold War. He spent four years flying F-100s with a one megaton thermonuclear hydrogen bomb on the fighter’s centerline pylon.
His mission was to deliver that bomb somewhere east of the Iron Curtain on a target. Though he never did need to drop a bomb, the fact that the bombs were there was enough for the enemy to give up and “liberty was preserved again.”
That was the culmination of his Air Force career, “Twenty years in one microsecond.”
After leaving the Air Force, Rutan came to Mojave, Calif., where he built and flight tested airplanes with his brother, Burt. One day, his brother suggested that Rutan fly all the way around the world non-stop and non-refueled. The key to accomplishing this task would be the use of carbon fiber.
And so the two brothers, along with Dick’s girlfriend Jeana Yeager, set three goals for themselves, fly un-refueled, do it first and get credit for it. After all, “A milestone only counts if you do something significant first.”
In 1924, a Douglas World Cruiser completed the first transglobal flight and in 1949 a Boeing B-50A “Lucky Lady II” made the first non-stop, round-the-world flight with the assistance of aerial refueling.
The team and volunteers spent five-and-a-half years planning and building the Voyager. The aircraft was designed to carry three-quarters of its weight in fuel, leaving only one-quarter of the weight for the aircraft’s structure, supplies and passengers. As such, the crew became “fanatical” about weight savings.
The cockpit was designed just large enough for Rutan and Yeager to survive the flight and the required 48 hours after landing to make it into the record books. The final structure was only 926 pounds and carried 3.6 tons of fuel.
“I hated this airplane,” said Rutan. “It was the most horrible flying qualities airplane.”
On a cold Dec. 14 morning in 1986, Voyager took off using 95-percent of the world’s longest runway at Edwards AFB. Rutan had not slept much the night before that historic flight and as the aircraft began to roll down the runway, he thought he would die, that continuing the mission would be suicide.
“But then I looked at all those volunteers who had believed in us, some of them had lost their jobs to be there. So how do you get out and walk away from them,” Rutan asked himself. “But the thing that really capped it, was if I get out of this airplane right now and walk away, I could be alive, but I’ve got to shave the face of some guy that gave up for the rest of his life.”
As the Voyager struggled to lift, her wingtips dragged along the runway. When she finally reached flight, the wingtips were damaged and both dislodged themselves from the wings resulting in a three-foot loss in the wingspan.
Three and a half days into the flight Rutan recalls being so tired he would have given anything to land. Then he remembered what his mother had always told him, “If you can dream it, you can do it. The only way to fail is if you quit.”
Nine days, three minutes and 44 seconds after takeoff, the Voyager returned to Edwards.
Today, the Voyager hangs on display at the National Air and Space Museum, and on occasion, Rutan will visit her.
“Without exception I walk in and, probably out loud, say, ‘I built that and I flew it around the world,” said Rutan. Adding that he’s the only person who can say those words and as it turned out, “that’s the only thing that mattered.”
After sharing his story, Rutan presented each cadet with a signed bobble head of himself from last year’s Lancaster Jet Hawks Aerospace Night. The bobble heads represent Rutan’s appreciation for the cadets who have provided flightline marshalling and public safety at The Mojave Transportation Museum’s Plane Crazy Saturdays in Mojave throughout the last year. The cadets also provided similar services at the Los Angeles County Air Show at the William J. Fox Airfield in Lancaster, Calif., last March.
Civil Air Patrol is a non-profit Congressionally-chartered community service organization and an auxiliary of the Air Force. One of the Civil Air Patrol’s main focuses is Cadet Aerospace Education.
“Who better than to have Mr. Rutan share how his very own historical flight came to be,” said Capt. Gail Harper, CAP Public Affairs officer. “I grew up in Dayton where the Kitty Hawk is and heard so much about the Wright Brothers’ historical airplane and flight. I learned how to play golf at the Kitty Hawk golf course. He really reminded me of the Wright Brothers. The way that he and Burt started with an idea and a design, and then began building, the next thing you know they had an airplane.”
CAP Squadron 84’s mission is to build future leaders through teaching the cadets community service, aerospace education, emergency services and cadet programs.
“I was so impressed by Mr. Rutan’s modesty in his aerospace achievements,” said Harper. “He proved that you must believe in and follow your dreams, to pursue an education in math and sciences, no matter your gender.”