DESCENDING out of a sun-burnished sapphire sky, the experimental aircraft Voyager touched down here Tuesday morning, ending a risky, round-the-world odyssey and making aviation history. The successful landing at this military base capped a journey that many consider a triumph of technology and human endurance. Voyager provides a bittersweet counterpoint to a year that - with the space shuttle Challenger - began in tragedy. And it also may herald advances in aviation.
Pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, who ended their voyage almost exactly nine days after it began, are the first to circle the globe in an aircraft without stopping or refueling.
``It's the last `first' in aviation, and done by Americans,'' said pilot Rutan as he circled the dry lake bed here one final time before landing.
Establishing their niche in aviation history, however, was not easy for pilots Rutan and Yeager. When they emerged from the cramped cockpit of the spindly aircraft Tuesday they were ebullient, but also bruised and fatigued from the arduous, 25,012-mile voyage.
``I have to admit there were times during the flight when I did not think it would be successful,''said Rutan just before landing.
By flying around the world, Voyager nearly doubled the previous record (12,532 miles) for nonstop, unrefueled flight - set in 1962 by a United States Air Force B-52 long-range bomber.
The feat, however, carries significance beyond setting a record. While the experimental plane itself has no direct commercial application, the performance of its radical design and lightweight materials has been of keen interest in civilian and military circles.
Voyager has a wingspan larger than a Boeing 727 jetliner, but weighs less than 2,000 pounds without fuel. Its bantamweight build is made possible by a frame and skin made almost entirely of tough, lightweight composites.
The Pentagon is believed to be interested in the plane's extraordinary range and resistance to radar for possible reconnaissance and other missions. Commercial airliners increasingly incorporate high-tech materials similar to those used in Voyager to reduce aircraft weight and improve fuel efficiency. Some aviation experts think Voyager may be a forerunner of a generation of long-endurance, high-flying platforms. Such craft could substitute for expensive communications satellites. ``Just having done this opens new doors where we didn't even know doors existed,'' says Dr. Bruce Holmes of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Langley Research Center.
Perhaps more than anything, however, the Voyager flight represented a remarkable human achievement. For 216 hours and 4 minutes, the two pilots were wedged into a cockpit only 3 feet in diameter and 7 feet long - a space that Bert Rutan, Dick's brother and the designer of the plane, likens to a ``telephone booth on its side.''
There were plenty of perilous times during the trip. At takeoff, the aircraft's wings, laden with fuel, were damaged and there was concern the flight would be aborted almost before it started.
The plane later skirted a typhoon over the Indian Ocean, and while passing over Africa it hit turbulence so bad that the pilots were bruised from being bounced off the roof of the cabin.
Even on its last night of flight the aircraft ran into difficulty. It dropped from an altitude of 8,900 feet to 5,000 feet when vapor lock shut down the rear engine for 90 seconds.
``It was a human triumph,'' said Robert van der Linden, assistant curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Nevertheless, Mr. van der Linden and some others caution against putting the Voyager flight on too high an aviation pedestal.
``When Lindbergh landed in Paris, the world was forever changed,'' says van der Linden. ``Voyager is a very significant human accomplishment. But it won't change history.''
Many might dispute that assessment.
Tens of thousands of people lined this dry desert lake bed to watch the aircraft come in, and many millions watched on televisions across the US.
Dick Rutan, sensing the moment in history, circled the featherweight craft several times before landing. Voyager, resembling a huge dragonfly, was shadowed by a convoy of four chase planes.
When the former Air Force fighter jockey finally brought the plane to rest on the chapped lake bed, he gave a thumbs-up sign and put on a cowboy hat, apparently a Rutan trademark.
That its flight and landing caught the imaginations of so many people is perhaps fitting for an aircraft that was basically the result of a grass-roots effort. Voyager was built by a small group of people, with no government funding. Some corporations chipped in equipment or financial support.