Flying as high as his dreams

Pilot tells Pillars crowd of his record-setting flight around the world

Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2001

Retired Air Force pilot and Vietnam veteran Richard "Dick" Rutan once flew almost 25,000 miles without bathing, and sleeping only one or two out of every 24 hours.

"We almost died every day," Rutan said in a Wednesday speech at Centennial Hall, "we" being himself and flight partner Jeana Yeager. But it was all worth it to be the first to fly around the world, nonstop and without refueling, he said.

"Don't stay in the parking lot going in circles and waiting for all the lights to be green if you need to get to the other side of town," is how Rutan put his basic philosophy to a packed house. "The essence of life is adventure. What you can accomplish is only limited by what you can dream. My mother always says, 'The tougher the climb, the better the view.'"

"When I was a kid, nobody thought they could fly faster than the speed of sound. Chuck Yeager did it, and changed our lives. The motivation for doing the (Voyager) flight around the world was an aviation milestone. A milestone is something you get to keep. The person who does it second is probably banished to the Lake of Obscurity forever," Rutan, 62, said.

This was his second appearance in Juneau as part of the Pillars of America Freedom Series. The series is hosted by Glacier Valley Rotary Club and Rutan's lecture was sponsored by Douglas Island Pink and Chum, Trident Seafoods and Wards Cove Packing.

Rutan didn't have "two nickels to rub together" when he and his brother Burt, "the slide rule designer," conceived of the flight in 1981. They spent five years gathering funds and volunteers.

The Rutans could have taken the easy way out by accepting a $2.5 million offer from a tobacco company, but "we weren't going to put a narcotic on the side of our airplane," he said firmly.

"Everything isn't already done," he told the audience. "Solutions are not in books. They are in big pools of chaos." He defined Burt's talent as "diving right into chaos and nonsense and coming out with solutions."

The first test flight came in 1984. Voyager proved extremely difficult to fly, nearly unable to turn. "Well," Burt said, "you're going around the world. You don't need to turn."

Voyager was also slow. "It took a lot of patience for a fighter pilot to go around the world at the speed of a Piper Cub," Rutan said.

Weight was so important that he and Yeager cut their hair to add a quarter-mile to the distance they could travel on the fuel they had available.

When Voyager finally took off at Edwards Air Force Base on the morning of Dec. 14, 1986, with 3.6 tons of fuel in a honeycomb of 18 tanks, "I thought I had a 50-50 chance of dying in the next five minutes" because the take-off taxi took an interminable two minutes and 10 seconds, during which the wing tips dragged on the runway.

There was no specific flight plan. Rutan and Yeager consigned their fate to the vagaries of weather. The plan was to "stay in the easterly river of the equatorial trade winds," with the route updated every six hours by a weather forecaster on the ground.

Preparing for and during the flight, Rutan was haunted by "a horrible recurring nightmare that I would fly around the world and land 100 miles short."

The nightmare nearly came true when trapped fuel wouldn't transfer and fuel pumps balked during the last eight hours of the flight. But Yeager and Rutan hustled to re-plumb things, and found themselves coming back into Edwards looking down on "cars bumper to bumper all the way into L.A." waiting to meet them. After nine days, three minutes and 44 seconds, they set the plane down on a dry lake bed.

Voyager is now displayed in Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Private pilot Patrick Shier, supervisor of audit operations for the state Department of Labor, came to hear Rutan because he had recently seen Voyager at the Milestones of Flight Gallery there.

"Having him here was too good to pass up," Shier said. Shier, who grew up in Fairbanks next door to Alaska aviation pioneer Sig Wien, respects Rutan as "somebody who wasn't afraid of anything and willing to risk a lot."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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