Voyager: designed on a napkin, built on a shoestring
Mojave, Calif. — History may be unfolding here in Hangar 77, which is one reason why Dan Card, a National Parks ranger, is spending more than 12 hours a day peering at aeronautical charts and global weather maps. Mr. Card, thickset and affable, was content being a ranger at Yosemite National Park until, three years ago, he stopped off at the dusty airstrip here in his small Cessna.
He met pilots Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan, who told him of their plan to fly a plane around the world without stopping or refueling. Soon Card started showing up on weekends to volunteer help. Then, last summer, he took a temporary leave to work on the project full time.
``Not doing this, to me, would be like knowing history and telling the Wright brothers you didn't want to work in their bicycle shop,'' says Card, now general manager of Voyager Aircraft Corporation.
He is one of several dozen aviation buffs, engineers, and other volunteers who have worked behind the scenes on the Voyager project - and added to its Don Quixote image.
The project itself is unusual enough: trying to circle the globe in a plane on one tank of gas - considered one of the last great feats in aviation. Approaching the halfway point in their journey at the time this was written, pilots Yeager and Rutan were narrowing in on this trophy, with their landing scheduled in the desert here Christmas Eve.
But whether or not the record is achieved, the Voyager project has also been distinguishable by the way it moved from vision to voyage.
In the past, many of the great aviation records were set by fliers who, backed by industrialists or corporations, took an existing plane, modified it, and set out to break a record.
In this case, the plane was built from the ground up for the mission, largely with the help of volunteers, and on a shoestring budget.
``It has been done with a lot of patience and perserverance,'' says Ronald E.G. Davies, curator of air transport at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washingtron, D.C.
He and some others caution against overblowing the significance of the attempt. While they note that the nonrefueled, globe-girdling flight will be a landmark achievement if it is completed, they doubt it will have the impact of some earlier flights.
``The point about the Lindbergh flight is that it changed the attitude of an entire nation, if not the world, about aviation,'' Mr. Davies says. He says he doesn't think Voyager will dramatically ``forward the art of aviation and aeronautics.''
Voyager apparently began, like all good quixotic quests should, with a sketch on a restaurant napkin. In 1981, Burt Rutan, an unorthodox aircraft designer who some consider the Leonardo da Vinci of modern aviation, was lunching with Dick, his brother, and Jeana Yeager in Mojave. Talk turned to trying to break the world record for nonstop, unrefueled flight, at the time 12,532 miles. Burt said a plane could be built to more than double that, circling the globe. He sketched his version of the craft on the napkin.
At first, the trio was unable to interest any corporations or wealthy individuals in underwriting the venture. They thought it either too outlandish or too risky.
Later, a number of aircraft manufacturers and other companies donated equipment. In all, some 60 of them have chipped in parts. Most of the money for the project, however, has been raised through the sale of Voyager buttons, T-shirts, and other paraphernalia, as well as through the VIP (Voyager Impressive People) club, a group started by the project's organizers. So far, some 5,000 people have put up at least the $100 minimum required to join the club.
``It has been a grass-roots effort,'' says Voyager spokesman Peter Riva.
Building the unusual, H-shaped aircraft was also something of a barn-raising affair. Over the years, dozens of volunteers wielded wrenches and helped with everything from sweeping floors to sanding the composite skin of the aircraft.
Mr. Riva figures that, since 1982, more than 30,000 hours a year of volunteer time has gone into the project. Only four people on the Voyager staff are paid (three secretaries and a handyman).
Fergus (Fergie) Fay, a retired engineer from Rockwell International, began working on the project in his spare time in 1984. Shortly thereafter he started putting in five-day weeks. An accomplished pilot himself, Mr. Fay flies home to the Los Angeles area on weekends in his home-built plane.
``I just got so enthused in what they were trying to do I wanted to jump in and help,'' the stout engineer says.
R.D. (Dick) Blosser still works for Rockwell. But the computer facility manager spent most of his four weeks of vacation this year in Hanger 77.
``This is probably the only opportunity I've ever had to participate in something that will only happen once,'' says Mr. Blosser, Voyager's mission control communications chief. ``You get your rewards by telling your kids about it.''
The driving forces behind the project, however, have been Rutan, Rutan, and Yeager (no relation to flying ace Chuck Yeager).
A former Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew 325 combat missions over Vietnam, Dick Rutan began putting together model airplanes when he was 10. Younger brother Burt started building them not long after - sometimes without kits.
``Both of these kids really got going on aviation at an early age,'' says their father, George (Pop) Rutan.
But why the risky, round-the-world attempt?
``I don't believe they have thought deeply about it,'' Pop Rutan says. ``They passed it off as just the natural thing to do. There is no way they could do anything else.''
Jeana Yeager is described as a shy, soft-spoken woman. She holds nine speed and endurance records in aviation.
``She has always felt like she could do anything,'' says her father, Lee Yeager, who came up for the flight from his home in Mesquite, Texas.
It is perhaps fitting that the attempt to break the record for nonstop, unrefueled flight would be launched by a group out of Mojave - a dusty, two-traffic-light town two hours north of Los Angeles. The airport here, a former military training station, has gained a reputation as a center for avante-garde flying technology and ``Right Stuff'' pilot savvy - a civilian version of nearby Edwards Air Force Base.
General Electric has an experimental engine plant here. Burt Rutan has a compnay that works with new aircraft designs and materials. Another firm builds drones for the military.
``It is the civilian flight test center,'' one local aviation buff says.
Voyager enthusiasts are now hoping for another trophy for the wall. But even if the plane doesn't complete its globe-girdling odyssey, many workers in the corrugated metal hangar here cling to a maxim Jeana Yeager enunciated before the flight:
``If you try, you really can't be said to have failed.''