Twenty-five years ago, the staff of the National Air and Space Museum held its collective breath for nine days as a seemingly fragile, flying fuel tank made its way across oceans and continents in an attempt to become the first aircraft to fly around the world non-stop and unrefueled. The odd-looking bird had departed Edwards Air Force Base, California, on the morning of December 14, 1986, and the rest of the world was following as continuous sightings and updates flowed to the media, the Museum, and to the flight’s headquarters in Mojave, California. Everyone wondered if you really could fly around the world on one tank of gas?
As it turned out, you needed 17 tanks of fuel all in one vehicle from start to finish. Voyager, the ultimate homebuilt, was the brainchild of unconventional designer Burt Rutan and two record-setting pilots, his brother Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager. Six years from initial conception on a napkin, as the story goes, to completion of the flight two days before Christmas in 1986, this trio successfully proved that lots of hard work and a little bit of luck could still make dreams come true. Of course they didn’t do it alone. A dedicated team of volunteers supported every aspect of the endeavor, but it was Dick Rutan and Yeager who beat the bushes for donations from the general public and corporate sponsors (they never did get a big-time sponsor) and built and tested the aircraft themselves. In the end, their dramatic quest created a public following that rivaled the flight-tracking of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. All of a sudden Museum curators were being asked who else had flown around the world, how and when were the flights accomplished, and was this really the last aviation milestone? We knew the answers to the first two questions: in 1924, Army Air Corps crews flew two Douglas World Cruisers biplanes on the first round the world flight, a six-month marathon around oceans and through the arctic snow and tropical jungles — one of the airplanes, the Chicago, is in the Museum’s Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery. Then in 1957, three USAF B-52B bomber crews made the first non-stop flights around the world aided by aerial refueling. No one seriously considered it possible to accomplish the flight without some sort of refueling, until Burt Rutan did. The sheer audacity of assuming it could be done had to wait for dramatic changes in aircraft construction material and an out-of-the-box thinker. Weight, the ever-present penalty for aircraft, was the ultimate problem to be conquered. How could you squeeze in enough fuel to fly nearly 25,000 miles and yet keep the aircraft light enough to even take off? Carbon fiber was the answer, making the aircraft half the weight of conventional aluminum construction, but as strong as steel. Burt Rutan’s design certainly turned heads with its forward canard and graceful wings connecting two out-rigger booms, all of which contained 7011.5 pounds of fuel. Every effort was made to keep the aircraft light, and thankfully Yeager weighed only 95 pounds. The two pilots were crammed into a phone booth-sized barebones cockpit and they would be there for nine days. That alone earns gasps when people first see the aircraft but add the fact that, unbeknownst to the public, the pilots had not been getting along very well and you have a truly incredible feat.
The Rutans and Yeager made it clear they expected success and they wanted to see the aircraft hanging at the Smithsonian. The Museum adopted a wait and see attitude; given the long delays in the program and the dangers and pitfalls of the proposed flight, would this ever really happen? Ultimately, determination and perseverance prevailed as Voyager and its crew endured the loss of its winglets on and just after takeoff, a typhoon, thunderstorms that flipped the craft to a 90-degree bank, fuel starvation in one engine, and severe physiological and psychological stress. The Museum followed the nine-day trip in the Air Transportation gallery but there were still questions — was it really one of the last great records of aviation? By the time Rutan and Yeager landed back at Edwards AFB at 8:05am PST on December 23, 1986, it was clear that history had been made. Not only were they the first to fly non-stop non-refueled around the world, they also set eight absolute or world class records. Winning aviation’s prestigious Collier Trophy settled the discussion. While the press lavished praise couched in holiday cheer, the Museum began planning for a new addition to its collection. In the summer of 1987, Voyager was dismantled for its trip by trailer from California to the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland. While Voyager received accolades at the Experimental Aircraft Association Convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, structural engineer and curator Howard Wolko calculated how to get this huge aircraft into the building. After a midnight wide-load ride from the Garber Facility to the west terrace of the Museum in Washington, DC, our team of specialists moved the center section onto dollies. Then the carefully laid plans came to a halt. Just inside the west doors a replica aircraft carrier deck which held our Grumman Hellcat protruded a little too far, and it was clear that Voyager would not pass. In the wee hours of the morning, a solution was found: elevate and tilt the center section with a hydraulic lift, inching it over and past the offending carrier deck. After barely sliding by the Air Transportation gallery, the center section was rolled into the South Lobby at dawn. Thankfully the assembly of the wings, empennage, and engines was routine and our able but tired staff suspended Voyager using scissor lifts and winches in time for our 10:00 a.m. opening. The near catastrophic loss of the winglets on takeoff proved fortunate for us by reducing the wingspan by two feet and allowing the aircraft to fit snugly into the South Lobby. On the first anniversary of the flight, Burt and Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager reached their final goal of seeing Voyager suspended in the south lobby of the National Air and Space Museum.