Nearly 27 years ago, the one-of-a-kind, purpose-built Voyager aircraft embarked on a non-stop, unrefueled flight around the world, setting a world record that remains unchallenged today.
Dick Rutan, the pilot of this historic flight that departed from and landed at Edwards Air Force Base in the Southern California desert, recently recounted the Voyager’s almost 25,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe to employees at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center.
“I got to really hate this airplane. I felt not only was it not going to work, but I would probably die in it,” Rutan said of the Voyager, the aircraft his brother Burt Rutan designed. “Yes, it had terrible flying qualities, but it had to make it around the world. Burt knew that it must have major compromises to make it around the world.”
Essentially a flying fuel tank, the Voyager lifted off Edwards’ main runway early in the morning of Dec. 14, 1986, rolling down almost the entire length of the 15,000-foot-long runway and scraping off one of its wingtip winglets before it became airborne. When it touched down on the same runway shortly after 8 a.m. on Dec. 23 after nine days, three minutes and 44 seconds in the air, it had less than two hours worth of fuel remaining.
The non-stop unrefueled flight, which more than doubled the previous distance record set in 1962 by a U.S. Air Force B-52H, remains a world record and an unduplicated aeronautical feat.
Also, the flight arguably deserved an award for being the worst date in history. Rutan shared the bathtub-sized cockpit for a week and a half with his then-girlfriend Jeana Yeager (no relation to famed Air Force test pilot Brig. Gen. Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager).
Rutan even brought a small plastic bag with an adhesive, circular opening to answer the question he said he is often asked firstóhow did you go to the bathroom?
Despite the pains and dangers of flying the Voyager, Rutan said the flight “was arguably aviation’s last milestone.”
During his presentation, Rutan showed a video of the Voyager’s take off. The approximately two-minute video starts with the lightweight aircraft taking almost the entire length of one of the world’s longest runways to lift off. The video ends with a chase plane flown by Burt Rutan following the Voyager on the first leg of its flight before Burt turned back.
“They got 100 knots,” Rutan said quoting his brother Burt. “I didn’t think they’d make it.”
When the Voyager returned to Edwards Air Force Base, Rutan said he expected to land and park in a remote corner of the flight line. He was surprised to find tens of thousands waiting for his return.
Rutan remains a resident of the Mojave area, and is currently a member of the governing board of the Mojave Air and Space Port, as well as serving as a test pilot for XCOR Aerospace. The Voyager is enshrined in the Milestones of Flight gallery at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
“That dry lake bed is sacred ground,” Rutan said of Rogers Dry Lakebed at Edwards. “Maybe when I die they can spread my ashes out there.”