The Flight Of The Voyager

Voyager returning from its flight
Voyager returning from its flight

The first aircraft to fly around the world without stopping or refueling was the Voyager. This unusual aircraft was designed by Burt Rutan. The Rutan Model 76 Voyager was built almost entirely of lightweight graphite-honeycomb composite materials. It took five years to build and test the airplane in Rutan’s factory in Mojave, California.

The main problem with the Voyager was its fuel load, same as with Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis 70 years ago. Burt Rutan calculated that an aircraft made of aluminum, capable to contain the fuel for a round-the-world trip, would have to be enormously huge. The solution for this problem was in composites. Rutan glued together layers of carbon-fiber cloth and honeycombed paper, placed between a skin of graphite fibers, making a material seven times stronger than aluminum and much more lighter than it. This resulted in a 2,860 pound aircraft that was just 100 pounds heavier than the legendary Spirit of St. Louis.

The epic voyage began at 8:01am on December 14 1986. from Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert. Two pilots, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, were in the cockpit of the 110 foot wingspan Voyager. It accelerated very slowly and needed 14.200 feet of runaway to take-off. As the aircraft started to gain speed, the tips of the wings, which were heavily loaded with fuel, were damaged as they scraped against the runway. Both winglets were broken on both wings. The gross weight at takeoff was 9,694.5 pounds and most of that weight was fuel (7,011 pounds) carried in 17 tanks.

Jeana Yeager And Dick Rutan
Jeana Yeager And Dick Rutan

During the flight, the crew had to maneuver around bad weather numerous times, including Typhoon Marge in the Pacific in the early stage of the flight. Also Libya denied access to its airspace and that caused another detour to be made.

Two pilots were in a cockpit little larger than a phone booth, measuring just 3 1/2 by 7 1/2 feet. One crew member would fly the aircraft, while the other one was resting. It was initially planned for the pilots to fly in 3-hour shifts but things did not always go according to plan. In such a narrow space, changing places without knocking the controls was a minor feat of acrobatics.

On December 23 1986, Voyager completed its record flight and landed in Edwards Air Force Base. Total flight time was 9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds. The Voyager flew westerly 26,366 statute miles, at the average altitude of about 11,000 feet and with the average speed of 116 mph.

For this record-breaking flight, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, Burt Rutan and Bruce Evans who was the crew chief, received aviation’s most prestigious award – the Collier Trophy.

The Voyager was powered by two engines, one at each end of the fuselage. The rear engine was a 110 hp air-cooled Teledyne Continental IOL-200. This engine was the main source of power throughout the flight. The front engine was a 130 hp, air-cooled Teledyne Continental O-240 and it provided extra power for take-off and during the initial flight stage.

Dimensions and performance:

Length: 29 ft 2 in (8.90 m)
Wingspan: 110 ft 8 in (33.80 m)
Height: 10 ft 3 in (3.10 m)
Empty weight: 2250 lb (1020.6 kg)
Gross weight: 9694.5 lb (4397.4 kg)
Maximum speed: 122 mph (196 km/h)
Range: 24,986 miles (42,212 km)


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