This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Record-Breaking Flight of the Voyager

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December 23, 1986: Voyager Completes Global Flight

The experimental aircraft, Voyager, lands at Edwards Air Force Base in California after a nine day, four minute flight thus completing the first nonstop flight around the globe . . . on one tank of gas.

American pilots Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager (no relation to Chuck Yeager) flew the Voyager which was made mostly of plastic and stiffened paper.  When it took off from Edwards on December 14 it carried more the three times its weight in fuel.  When it returned after flying 25,012 miles around the planet it had just 5 gallons of fuel left in its remaining operational fuel tank.

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Burt Rutan with his Space Ship One

Burt Rutan with his Space Ship One

Voyager was built by Burt Rutan of the Rutan Aircraft Company without government support and a minimal of corporate sponsorship. The aircraft was extremely light, made of layers of carbon fiber tape and paper impregnated with epoxy resin.  Its wingspan was 111 feet and the horizontal stabilizer wing was on the plane’s nose rather than its rear – a trademark of many of Ratan’s designs.  The aircraft was essentially a flying fuel tank, every possible area was used for fuel storage.

Burt Rutan and his aircraft

Dick Ruton, Burt’s brother, was a decorated Vietnam War pilot, Jeanna Yeager was a pilot friend of his. Rutan and Yeager shared the controls, Dick was a more experienced pilot and did most of the flying owing to the long periods of turbulence encountered at various points in the journey. With weak stomachs, they ate only a fraction of the food brought along, and each lost about 10 pounds.

Damaged wing tip

Damaged wing tip

When Voyager took off, its wings were so heavy with fuel that their tips scraped along the ground and caused minor damage. The plane made it into the air and headed west to begin its record setting journey.

Dick Rutan had been concerned about flying the aircraft at more than a 15-degree angle, but he soon found the plane could fly on its side at 90 degrees.  On the second day, Voyager ran into severe turbulence caused by two tropical storms in the Pacific.  Voyager was tossed back and forth in the turbulence.

Yeager in the aircraft

Yeager in the aircraft

Flying north along the Baja California Coast, just 450 miles short of its goal, Voyagers’ engine went out and the aircraft plunged from 8,500 feet to 5,000 before an alternate engine could be started and flight resumed.

Almost nine days to the minute after it lifted off, Voyager appeared over Edwards Airforce Base and circled as Yeager turned a primitive crank that lowered the landing gear. To the cheers of 23,000 spectators the plane landed safely with a few gallons to spare completing the first nonstop circumnavigation of the earth by an aircraft not refueled.

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Voyager is on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

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