Burt Rutan Recounts Emotional Voyager Flight

Burt Rutan came home to Mojave over the weekend, nine months after retiring from Scaled Composites and moving to Idaho. He was here to mark the 25th anniversary of Voyager’s non-stop flight around the world that his brother, Dick, and Jeana Yeager flew in 1986.

Burt Rutan spoke for two hours in a conference room in the Mojave Air and Space Port’s administration building on Saturday, holding an overflow crowd spellbound as he recounted the daring 9-day flight completed a quarter century this month.

Rutan gave the talk on Plane Crazy Saturday, a monthly open house held at the airport. The tarmac was filled with planes that Rutan had designed, and the parking lot was overflowing with cars as aviation enthusiasts flocked to Mojave to celebrate the historic flight. Later that day, a dinner was held at the Mariah Country Inn & Suites just outside the airport gates.

Dick Rutan was away during the day attending a funeral of a relative, so Burt Rutan held forth. He revealed many fascinating details of the struggles to get Voyager built and the drama of the round-the-world trip. For example, as Dick Rutan and Yeager prepared for their flight, they had no other income and could not afford rent. The Rutans’ parents gave them free use of a house they owned and agreed to keep the refrigerator stocked up.

Dick Rutan and Yeager flew around the world together even though they had broken up as a couple several months previously. They later did a series of talks together to make money, but they were not together except on stage. It played well with the public and press, but it was a very bad scene, Burt Rutan recalled.

Voyager was unstable in turbulence, was exhausting to fly, and beat up its crews. One flight from Mojave to Oshkosh, Wisc., had to be ended early not because of a problem with the plane but because the crew just couldn’t continue flying.

The weather gods smiled on this mission. On the day that Voyager was ready to go, the metrological forecasts were clear all along the equator. That had never happened in the months leading up to the flight.

During takeoff, Voyager’s long wings — loaded with fuel — scraped along the ground, damaging the tips and causing two winglets to fall off. Mission control was telling Dick Rutan to pull back on the stick, but Yeager had the microphone keyed so she could read off speed and runway markers. The message never reached the aircraft.

Yeager never flew Voyager during the flight; the aircraft was either on autopilot or Dick was flying it. Rutan praised Yeager’s contribution to the mission, saying it would not have been accomplished without her efforts.

During the flight, controllers were puzzled by a disappearance of fuel, a result of leakage from new valves that had been installed. When they finally figured out the problem and determined that Voyager would have enough fuel to complete its journey, Rutan rushed out to tell the assembled media only to find they had all left to cover the landing at Edwards Air Force Base.

The most emotional moment of the talk came when Rutan recalled flying out with Mike Melvill to greet Voyager as it returned along the California coast. They spotted an aircraft in the pre-dawn light, illuminated by its strobe light.

“Dick, turn off the strobe light,” Rutan radioed his brother. The light went out, and Rutan and Melvill broke down in tears at the sight. It was Voyager; they had made it, and Dick and Jeana were coming home alive.

The emotion of that memory was so strong that Rutan broke down in tears recounting it 25 years later.