"Born with aviation fuel in his body instead of blood" is how "Dick" Rutan's mother describes her eldest child. Born 1 July 1938 in Loma Linda, California, Dick has loved aviation since he was a child. On his 16th birthday, he got his driver's license and his pilot's license. While in high school, he fell in love with the speed and power of the F-100 Super Sabre. In 1958, he joined the Air Force Aviation Cadet Program, was commissioned a second lieutenant, earned navigator's wings, and was assigned to Iceland to fly the F-89 Scorpion. He next flew the Douglas C-124 Globemaster and, after logging over 1,900 hours as a navigator, entered pilot training. Dick was the top graduate of his class at Laughlin AFB, Texas, and in 1967 fulfilled his dream to fly the F-100.
He was soon sent to South Vietnam to fly ground attack missions, but quickly volunteered to become a forward air controller (FAC) in the Commando Sabre program. As a "Misty FAC," he flew the F-100 over North Vietnam. Dick was shot down (and quickly rescued) midway through his third tour in 1968. Returning from Vietnam, he spent the next 7 years in various assignments in Europe and at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. In 1975, he was assigned to Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, as a Flight Test Maintenance Officer in the 355th Tactical Fighter Squadron. He retired in 1978 as a lieutenant colonel and began working for his brother, Burt, an aerospace engineer who designed high performance home-built aircraft. Dick flight tested Burt's designs and demonstrated them at air shows.
In 1980, he met Jeana Yeager and a year later, their dream of flying around the world took shape and dominated the next 6 years. They founded Voyager Aircraft, Inc., and began the task of raising money. He set several aircraft speed and endurance records to generate publicity. In May 1981, he set a distance record of 4,563 statute miles for an aircraft weighing less than 1,000 kilograms. The following February, he set a closed course speed record for both 500 and 2,000 kilometers. Dick was awarded the 1982 Louis Bleriot Award for his aviation records. On 1 June 1984, after 3 years of work, Dick soloed the Voyager on its maiden flight.
Then, on 14 December 1986, after 2 years refining the Voyager, Dick and Jeana lifted off from Edwards AFB, California, on their epic flight. Nine grueling days later, they returned to Edwards AFB to complete the first nonstop, unrefueled, around-the-world flight. Dick was awarded a Presidential Citizens Medal, the Collier Trophy, and the Order of Daedalians Distinguished Achievement Award. He is now developing a prototype of an unlimited class racing aircraft and working on the design of a large-cube transport.
The Voyager is no ordinary aircraft. The airframe is made of a honeycomb composite shell, with two fuel-efficient engines mounted on the fuselage fore and aft. With a 110-foot wingspan, and a cockpit measuring 72 feet long by 2 feet wide, Voyager weighs only 1,850 pounds empty. Numerous improvements were made during flight tests; however, one aerodynamic flaw remained--speeds at 82 1/2 knots would tear the wings off. Despite the risks, Dick and Jeana departed Edwards AFB, California, early on 14 December 1986. On takeoff, Voyager's winglets were damaged and, once airborne, Dick had to shake off the damaged portions. For the first 3 days, they dodged a typhoon, overcame mechanical failure, and struggled with high fuel consumption, which threatened flight completion. Over Africa on day four, fuel problems eased, but sleep and oxygen deprivation made both pilots sick. Three days later, just north of Brazil, turbulence threw Voyager into a 90-degree bank, but Dick's quick reaction recovered the aircraft. In the final hours of the flight, the rear engine quit due to a bad fuel pump. As Voyager lost altitude, they diagnosed the problem, started to shutdown the front engine, and then successfully restarted the rear engine. Voyager landed at Edwards AFB on 23 December with 8.4 gallons of fuel to complete the first nonstop, unrefueled, around-the-world flight--a distance of 26,700 statute miles.