Plane Completes The Circumnavigation of Earth Without Refueling In Midair - 12/23/1986

US History |


On this same day in 1986, the first aircraft to complete a nonstop flight around the globe without refueling in midair made its final stop at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The experimental plane called "Voyagerlands" traveled in air for a period of nine days and four minutes. Two Americans Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager piloted the plane, which was made mostly of plastic and hardened paper carrying three times more than its weight in fuel when it took off on December 14 at Edwards Air Force Base. The aircraft a flew a distance of 25,012 miles around the globe before returning to the airbase with only just five gallons of fuel left.

Burt Rutan of the Rutan Aircraft Company built the experimental plane without receiving any government sponsorship and with little corporate support. His brother Dick Rutan, who was a pilot during the Vietnam War, joined him in the project as well as his friend Jeanna Yeager (not related to aviator Chuck Yeager). The plane was built with light yet solid body made of layers of carbon-fiber tape and paper immersed in epoxy resin. Its wingspan was 111 feet, and every possible place on the plane was converted to store fuel making it impossible to attach much of the modern aircraft technologies in order to reduce weight making the aircraft looked more of a flying fuel tank.

The plane took off from Edwards Air Force at 8:02 a.m. PST on December 14, during which the heavy wings scratched the ground as it made it way off the runway because they were filled with fuel resulting in some minor damages. Fortunately, the plane made it into the air and traveled west. On the second day, Voyager kept running into serious turbulence caused by two hurricanes in the Pacific. Dick Rutan had been worried about flying the plane at more than a 15-degree angle, yet he soon found the plane could fly on its side at 90 degrees, which happened when the wind hurled it forward and backward.

During the flight, Rutan and Yeager shared the controls, however Rutan who is more experienced in flying planes, did a most of the flying due to the long hours of turbulence they experienced at different points in the trip. The stress was so much that they lost around 10 pounds each because their stomach was very weak and they could only eat a small portion of the food carried along.

As the plane neared its final destination, flying north along the Baja California coast with just only 450 miles left to complete the journey, the plane's engine went out completely and the plane came crashing from 8,500 to 5,000 feet before they started the second engine.

On December 23, after completing a nine days and four minutes journey, Voyager appeared over Edwards Air Force Base and hovered as Yeager turned a primitive crank that brought down the landing gear. Twenty-three thousand spectators watched as the plane made its final landing with only four gallons of fuel left, making Voyager the first aircraft to complete the circumnavigation of the earth without having to refuel in midair.

Voyager is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

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