Compass

Dec. 23, 1986: Rutan Voyager completes nonstop flight around the world

Compass

Voyager approaches the runway after its around-the-world flight. (Photo: Thomas Harrop / NASA Dryden Flight Research …

By the time the Rutan Voyager aircraft landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California after its flight around the world, its pilots had not only broken the previous record for unassisted, continuous flight: At 26,366 statute miles, they had more than doubled it.

The takeoff, landing and flight in between were filled with drama and stress for Voyager’s two pilots, Richard Rutan and Jeana Yeager. The plane, designed by Richard's brother Burt Rutan, needed the Air Force base’s longest runway to take off — it took 2.7 miles for the plane to gain enough speed. Because it was so heavily laden with fuel for its long flight, the plane’s wingtips scraped against the ground in the process and were damaged.

During the flight, the two pilots had to both take the controls more than they had originally anticipated (they had thought they’d take shifts) because of bad weather and the plane’s instability in the air. They had to make detours around a typhoon and the country of Libya, which refused them access to its airspace.

Finally, when Voyager was almost in sight of Edwards after 9 continuous days in the air, one of its fuel pumps died. But the plane landed safely, with just 1.5 percent of its fuel remaining. Both takeoff and landing were televised, and millions watched as Rutan and Yeager touched down.

It would be another 20 years before Steve Fossett broke Voyager’s record (in a plane also designed by Bert Rutan). Now, Voyager is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

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