On This Day

Rutan Voyager, Voyager aircraft
Thomas Harrop/NASA
The Rutan Voyager aircraft circles before landing at Edwards Air Force Base, Dec. 23, 1986.

On This Day: First Non-Stop Around-the-World Flight Completed

December 23, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 23, 1986, the Rutan Voyager aircraft, piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, completed the first non-stop, around-the-world flight without refueling.

The Rutan Voyager Flight

The idea for the Voyager originated during a lunch between brother Dick and Burt Rutan, and Jeana Yeager in 1981. “Like many great innovators,” says the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, “they quickly sketched their ideas onto a napkin while still at the lunch table.”

Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer, guided the designing and building of the aircraft, which was performed by a team made mostly of volunteers and supported entirely by private funding.

The aircraft needed to be extremely lightweight and capable of carrying massive amounts of fuel. It was constructed almost entirely of a lightweight composite material containing primarily graphite, Kevlar, and fiberglass, which kept the weight of the plane down to just 939 pounds. It had 17 fuel tanks with a capacity of 7,011 pounds; it was, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, “virtually a flying fuel tank.”

The Voyager took off from Edwards Air Force Base in Edwards, Calif., on Dec. 14, 1986. Dick Rutan, a decorated Air Force pilot, and Yeager flew the plane in short shifts over the next nine days, three minutes and 44 seconds, covering 24,986 miles. Their “physical and mental capabilities … were continually tested by mechanical and severe weather problems, as well as by the cramped quarters,” says NASM.

The New York Times described the conditions for the pilots: there was “a 7 1/2-by-2-foot compartment beside the even smaller cockpit … equipped with food, water, a five-foot rubber band for exercising, and rudimentary toilet facilities. The aviators' diet consisted of bland food supplements like powdered milk shakes.”

The pilots encountered thunderstorms over Africa and Brazil, but their most dangerous part of the journey came on the final day, when the rear engine stopped. The plane, flying at 8,500 feet, descended 5,000 feet before an emergency restart of the front engine allowed the pilots to regain control of the aircraft.

The aircraft landed safely at Edwards AFB on Dec. 23 with only 106 pounds of fuel remaining from the original 7,011 pounds. The pilots “were in remarkably good condition,” according to the NASM, and gave a press conference at the base, at which Rutan proclaimed, “This was the last major event of atmospheric flight.”

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