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What a grand Christmas gift it was—the "last first" in aviation, a nonstop flight around the world on the gossamer wings of one of the strangest looking craft ever built. Voyager, made of paper, graphite and resin, was a cross between a glider and a graphite fishing rod and it looked like the result of the mating of a seagull and a pterodactyl. The pilots were Dick Rutan, 48, a Vietnam War flying ace, and Jeana Yeager, 34, a gentle but steely Texan who never talks when she can be doing. Flying Voyager, said Yeager, was like riding on the back of an eagle.
Voyager slammed, bounced and flapped for some 26,000 lonely, tense miles in nine days and nights, plus 3 minutes and 44 seconds. It had departed during an almost full moon, which would follow the plane the whole way, and it returned last week to a glimmering dry lake bed near the runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., where it had taken off. The flight elevated its pilots to a lofty spot in aviation history.
Rutan's reverence for the moon and its powers approaches the mystical, and he credits Voyager's good fortune to the moon's company during the flight. But he carried his own fighter pilot's luck—he was pushing it, he realized, and was counting on it. And his copilot brought her own special talents. There's an angel perched on the shoulder of Jeana Yeager's extra-small leather flying jacket, and it took the full ride.
On the night before takeoff, the clear desert sky rained an omen of meteors—the Geminids, as many as 50 per hour—while Dick and Jeana slept; he in quarters at Edwards, she in the house they share in Mojave, Calif. At takeoff, with a gross weight of 9,750 pounds—the plane itself weighs a mere 1,858 pounds—Rutan was already exploring the unknown: The heaviest Voyager had weighed during 66 test flights was 8,600 pounds.
Full of fuel for the first time, Voyager's wings bowed like a branch with a bear on the end. Their tips began to drag as Voyager accelerated, and the ground crew was one breath away from ordering an abort. "I was absolutely certain they were going to crash off the end of the runway," said project engineer Mike Melvill, whom Rutan would call for advice and guidance over the next nine days. "I could see the big ball of flames."
But finally, after using up 14,000 feet of Edwards's 15,000-foot runway—the world's longest—Voyager lifted, along with thousands of hearts, its wingtips now bending upward and carrying it skyward.
Then Rutan discovered that the vertical winglets had been damaged by the scraping, and were falling off. But they were not critical to control, so he and Yeager strapped on their parachutes and he pitched Voyager from side to side and broke each winglet off before it could peel off by itself and possibly strip the skin off the wings.
Late that night Rutan and Yeager were 7,000 feet over the Pacific, on the way to Hawaii, soaring along at a ground speed of 154 mph with the assistance of a 33-knot tailwind. They were up. And they were staying up.
Rutan remained in the pilot's seat for Voyager's first 36 hours in the air—once grabbing a three-hour nap—as Jeana monitored the autopilot and other instruments from the off-duty pilot's space, which was 7.5 feet long, 2 feet wide and 14 inches high. She hadn't expected equal flying time: Rutan's 7,000 career hours dwarfed her 1,000, and he was of neither the right size nor temperament to endure the copilot's lot during turbulence. But the amount of time he would spend in the seat—nearly 85% of the flight—surprised even her. Rutan would continue at a seemingly superhuman pace, fueled by adrenaline, obsession and necessity, as Yeager performed the flight engineer's duties, not getting much more sleep than he.
"The best weather is behind us," announced chief meteorologist Len Snellman on Monday, the day after Voyager's takeoff. So soon. Snellman was referring to the threat posed by tropical storm Marge, which was on a swirling course that had it colliding with Voyager that night over the southwestern Pacific. Snellman vectored Voyager as close to Marge's outside winds as the crew could stand, in order to give the plane a boost from its 30-knot tailwinds. "Shooting the curl," it was called. For nearly 12 hours, Rutan and Yeager did just that.