Marvelous engineering of Voyager: The aircraft that traveled around the world without refueling

The flying fuel tank's flight "was arguably aviation's last milestone."
Loukia Papadopoulos
The Voyager
Voyager is shown during a test flight that led up to its non-stop unrefueled flight around the world in December 1986. Credits: contributed

Contributed to NASA 

Nearly 36 years ago, on December 23, 1986, pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, designer Burt Rutan, and crew chief Bruce Evans earned the Collier Trophy, aviation's most prestigious award, according to a NASA report published in 2013.

This was because their one-of-a-kind, purpose-built Voyager aircraft embarked on a non-stop, unrefueled flight around the world, setting an impressive world record at the time.

A 25,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe

The aircraft departed from and landed at Edwards Air Force Base in the Southern California desert. In September of 2013, Dick Rutan recounted the Voyager's almost 25,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe to employees at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.

"I got to really hate this airplane. I felt not only was it not going to work, but I would probably die in it," Rutan said of the Voyager, the aircraft his brother Burt Rutan designed. "Yes, it had terrible flying qualities, but it had to make it around the world. Burt knew that it must have major compromises to make it around the world." 

What was fundamentally a flying fuel tank, the Voyager lifted off Edwards' main runway early in the morning of December 14, 1986, rolling down almost the entire length of the 15,000-foot-long runway and scraping off one of its wingtip winglets before it became airborne. When it came back down on the same runway shortly after 8 a.m. on December 23 after nine days, three minutes, and 44 seconds in the air, it had less than two hours' worth of fuel remaining.

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Marvelous engineering of Voyager: The aircraft that traveled around the world without refueling
The Burt-Rutan voyager

Voyager was designed for maximum fuel efficiency and consisted of lightweight composite materials in 98 percent of its structure. The main part of the plane was a .635-centimeter (1/4-inch) sandwich of paper honeycomb and graphite fiber. It was developed without using metal and weighed only 425 kilograms (939 pounds).

The aircraft was powered by two engines, one at each end of the fuselage: a 110-hp, liquid-cooled rear engine (a Teledyne Continental IOL-200) and a 130-hp, air-cooled front engine (a Teledyne Continental 0-240).

The non-stop unrefueled flight more than doubled the previous distance record set in 1962 by a U.S. Air Force B-52H and remains am important aeronautical feat to this day.

Aviation's last milestone

Despite the pains and dangers of flying the Voyager, Rutan said the flight "was arguably aviation's last milestone."

Rutan even shared a video of the Voyager's take-off. The two-minute video showcases the lightweight aircraft taking almost the entire length of one of the world's longest runways to lift off and ends with a chase plane flown by Burt Rutan following the Voyager on the first leg of its flight before Burt turned back.

"They got 100 knots," Rutan said, quoting his brother Burt. "I didn't think they'd make it."

Rutan and then-girlfriend Yeager proceeded to experience nine sleepless days and nights, cramped in a noisy cabin, only two feet wide. They dodged storms, fought off hallucinations, and battled mechanical problems only to finally bring Voyager home safe and sound but with only 18 gallons of fuel left in her tanks.

When the aircraft returned to Edwards Air Force Base, Rutan said he expected to land and park in a remote corner of the flight line. He was surprised to find tens of thousands waiting for his return.

Today, the Voyager is enshrined in the Milestones of Flight gallery at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

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