t h e n e x t f i v e m i n u t e s | Column
The longest Flight The date: 14 Dec. 1986 Location: On the end of runway 04 Edwards AFB, in the high desert of California
By: Dick Rutan
survey the small, cramped cockpit and half sit up to look out the tiny bubble canopy. The forward fuselage was bent down more than I had ever seen it before. The left and right boom tanks, filled with tons of high test aviation fuel, were bent downward as well with the tips of the long, slim wings a mere ten inches above the three-mile long concrete runway. In the interest of saving weight, my colleague beside me had no seat or seat belt. She would lie on the uneven floor for the duration of the flight. She looked up at me, her eyes full of anticipation and confidence, ready to get on with it. This cluttered domicile of switches, levers, valves and gages was to be our world for the next 9 days. I attempted to fit the small canopy door into its position. It would not fit. The fuel on board this day far exceeded that of any previous flight, causing the frail carbon structure to contort the opening. With mixed emotions and a fist, I try to pound the door into the new misshapen opening, knowing that if it didn’t work I might not have to die today. We had worked on the project for five and a half years with the goal of being the first non-stop, non-refueled flight around the world. It would be an aviation milestone and quite arguably the last one in atmospheric flight. My fist delivers one last punch and the door pops into place. I secure the six tiny latches that will seal us in and leave us to our fate. I 112
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look outside and my loyal crew chief, Bruce Evans, who had held our lives in his hands, gives me a nod that all was ready. I key the mic. . . .”Edwards Tower, this is Voyager One. We are ready for takeoff.” “Voyager One, this is Edwards Tower. ATC clears Voyager One from Edwards AFB to Edwards AFB via flight plan route. Maintain 8,000 feet cleared for take-off and God Speed.” Well, this is what we had been working toward all these years. With no formal funding, depending on volunteers, begging for materials, equipment and engines, this project which had been fraught with a whole truckload of frustrations had finally come to fruition. The aircraft had deplorable flying qualities, a compromise necessary to achieve the 29,000 mile range needed for a world flight. During the 2 1/2 years of flight testing, we experienced numerous in-flight emergencies. These emergencies included a cockpit fire, a failed propeller that ripped the engine from its mounts, a cockpit noise level as loud as a passing freight train, and a pitch oscillation mode that we could never correct, and this oscillation only worsened with increased gross weight. On take-off this day, Voyager N269VA carried a fourth more fuel than had ever before been on board. An argument ensued with my brother Burt, the designer of this incredible long-range craft, after I had authorized that more fuel be loaded than recommended. His concern being that the longest runway in the free world would still not be long enough for the Voyager to become airborne. My concern
was that it would be too unwieldy to fly, even with my “velvet arm”. I took a few moments to reflect back on the day Burt thought that by using carbon fiber he could design a plane light enough to carry the needed fuel not only to break the current absolute distance record, but indeed to double it. I remembered turning down a multi-million dollar sponsorship from a narcotics firm, telling them their whole industry did not have enough money to put a cigarette on the side of our aircraft. We all had come a very long way to arrive at this point. Starting out, we had no idea that the road would be this difficult or dangerous. But there was no quitting now, no backing out. My mother had always reminded me that, “If you can dream it, you can do it. The only way to fail is if you quit.” At 0800 that cold December morning, with those words resonating in my mind, I pushed both throttles wide open, released the tiny brake on the nose wheel and . . . . . ..WONDERED WHAT THE NEXT 5 MINUTES OF MY LIFE WOULD BE LIKE. Dick Rutan, Voyager Commander Editor’s Note: The Voyager flight lasted nine days, three minutes and forty four seconds, and was filled with dramatic moments including threading their way through a hurricane, sustaining a failed fuel pump, and losing gallons of precious fuel that leaked from the shorn winglets; it’s an incredible story. We are pleased to welcome Dick Rutan onboard at PilotMag and look forward to hearing about more of his adventures, and more of his wisdom.