Circumnavigates the Globe Without Refueling

Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager set a new flight distance record when they piloted Voyager, an aircraft of unusual design, around the world without landing or refueling.

Summary of Event

It is no easy task for a pilot to fly around the world, and the standards used for around-the-world flight records have not always been well defined. In 1924, four U.S. Army open-cockpit biplanes started out to circle the globe, and after sixty-nine stopovers and 175 days, only two completed the trip. Wiley Post Post, Wiley flew around the world twice in a Lockheed Vega that he named Winnie Mae. In 1933, two years after his first trip, Post became the first man to accomplish the journey solo; that flight took seven days and eighteen hours with stopovers. On an attempted around-the-world flight in 1937, Amelia Earhart Earhart, Amelia vanished in the Pacific Ocean near Howland Island. Howard Hughes, Hughes, Howard flying his Lockheed 14, reduced the world record for around-the-world flight to three days and nineteen hours in 1938 utilizing staging facilities. Voyager (aircraft)
Aviation;flight records
[kw]Voyager Circumnavigates the Globe Without Refueling (Dec. 14-23, 1986)
[kw]Circumnavigates the Globe Without Refueling, Voyager (Dec. 14-23, 1986)
[kw]Globe Without Refueling, Voyager Circumnavigates the (Dec. 14-23, 1986)
Voyager (aircraft)
Aviation;flight records
[g]North America;Dec. 14-23, 1986: Voyager Circumnavigates the Globe Without Refueling[06290]
[g]United States;Dec. 14-23, 1986: Voyager Circumnavigates the Globe Without Refueling[06290]
[c]Spaceflight and aviation;Dec. 14-23, 1986: Voyager Circumnavigates the Globe Without Refueling[06290]
[c]Science and technology;Dec. 14-23, 1986: Voyager Circumnavigates the Globe Without Refueling[06290]
Rutan, Burt
Rutan, Dick
Yeager, Jeana

As increasing numbers of aviators were taking on the challenge of flying around the world and were doing it faster but not always covering the same distance, new distance standards were defined. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) established the minimum distance that would qualify for a world record as the circumference of the Tropic of Cancer or Capricorn, equal to 36,800 kilometers (roughly 22,900 miles). This distance is somewhat smaller than the earth’s circumference, which is 40,000 kilometers (about 24,900 miles).

In 1949, the first nonstop flight around the world was accomplished in ninety-three hours by an Air Force B-50, which was refueled while it was in the air. In 1962, an Air Force B-52 set the record for the longest nonrefueled flight to that date: 20,180 kilometers (about 12,540 miles).

The idea of creating an aircraft to attain aviation’s “last milestone” of a nonrefueled global flight started in 1980 with a sketch that aircraft designer Burt Rutan drew on a napkin at a restaurant in Mojave, California, in the presence of pilots Dick Rutan (Burt’s brother) and Jeana Yeager. Voyager was the result of a boom in home-built experimental aircraft involving high-technology concepts. These home-built airplanes pioneered the use of composite materials such as carbon-fiber spars and Nomex honeycomb sandwich, used to cover wings. The latter is a resin-soaked epoxy fiber coated with layers of carbon-fiber cloth that is oven cured in a pressurized chamber. The use of such exotic construction materials made the airframe flexible and very difficult to fly in turbulent air. That problem was partially solved through the use of specially designed autopilots that would assist the pilots in conditions of marginal stability.

The Voyager aircraft returns from its nonstop, record-breaking trip around the world in 1986.


Actual construction of Voyager commenced in 1981. On completion, the craft was the largest composite airplane built to date, with a wingspan of 33.8 meters (almost 111 feet). The placement of the horizontal stabilizer forward of the wing made the aircraft of canard design, and with two large outrigger booms connecting these flight surfaces, Voyager became a “flying fuel tank.” Altogether, seventeen fuel tanks were built into the aircraft’s interior, leaving only a very small space, 2.1 meters by1.0 meter (about 6.9 feet by 3.3 feet), for the pilots to occupy.

Voyager was powered by two American-built Continental engines; the front engine was air cooled with four cylinders, but the rear was a water-cooled design. These were high-efficiency engines utilizing fine-wire spark plugs to minimize carbon buildup during the long journey. Even the propellers were radically different in design from typical aircraft propellers.

After completing sixty-seven test flights, Voyager was readied for its dramatic around-the-world flight. The aircraft was loaded with fuel until it weighed 4,497 kilograms (about 9,914 pounds), of which 3,180 kilograms (about 7,011 pounds) was fuel.

The takeoff for the Voyager world flight commenced at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, December 14, 1986, and almost ended in disaster. The aircraft had difficulty becoming airborne because of the downward torsional forces exerted on the wing-canard forward flight surfaces by the fuel weight distribution. Voyager required all but 240 meters (about 790 feet) of a 4,600-meter (15,100-foot) runway to lift off, setting another world record of sorts for the longest takeoff roll. The long takeoff damaged both wingtips when they scraped the ground, and both were lost early in the flight. Fortunately, the loss of the wingtips did not greatly affect the craft’s overall performance; the result was an estimated 6 percent increase in drag.

The rate of climb, initially at 60 to 100 meters (200 to to 330 feet) per second, was better than expected, and the crew encountered no problems early into the flight as they climbed to altitudes of between 2,000 and 3,000 meters (roughly 6,500 and 9,800 feet) and maintained speeds of only 180 kilometers (about 112 miles) per hour. Their first rendezvous with a spotter aircraft, over Hawaii on the first night, was uneventful. Late on the second day, Voyager was on a collision course with Typhoon Marge coming up from the south and a severe low pressure system converging from the north. With help from a ground control weather operator, however, the copilots were able to weave a flight path between the two storm systems.

While Dick Rutan flew the first fifty-five out of sixty hours, Jeana Yeager had much work to do monitoring flight systems as well as carefully recording flight speeds, positions, winds, engine speeds, and fuel supplies in the appropriate logs. From time to time, Rutan and Yeager would interchange their positions, with Yeager doing the flying and Rutan resting; such movement was difficult in Voyager’s limited living space. The copilots were supplied with about 60 kilograms (130 pounds) of food and water provisions; they ate and drank from prepared samples that had been packed in small plastic pouches. To make hot meals, they placed their meal pouches around the aircraft’s heating duct.

On the sixth day, Rutan and Yeager noticed that the oil warning light for the rear engine flashed. Rutan had taken a quart of oil out of the engine instead of putting it in, by turning the hand crank the wrong direction. The problem was diagnosed quickly, and the oil was cranked back in. Immediately, the crew placed the airplane in a nose-down attitude to increase the air flow into the cooling ramps. After two hours, the temperature of the engine returned to the normal range. On day seven, severe turbulence from a thunderstorm in the South Atlantic forced Voyager into a ninety-degree bank, and both pilots experienced considerable discomfort.

When Rutan and Yeager were just a short distance from home on day nine, off the west coast of Baja California, the rear engine ceased running. The front engine was not running at the time—it had been kept as a backup system—and the aircraft lost more than 1,500 meters (about 4,900 feet) in altitude before the copilots got the front engine started. The problem was aggravated by the gravity-activated fuel flow when levels of fuel remaining in the tanks were low. A specially designed eight-to-one valve was used to control the fuel tank switching and proved essential at this stage of the flight.

Finally, on December 23, 1986, at 8:05 a.m., after a journey that lasted nine days, three minutes, and forty-four seconds, Voyager landed at Edwards Air Force Base before thousands of well-wishers. Only 48 kilograms (about 106 pounds) of fuel remained on board.


Voyager was the first airplane to fly around the world without landing or refueling; the official distance traveled in the trip was 40,212 kilometers (almost 24,987 miles). Other achievements of the flight were also notable, such as the time of nine days and the copilots’ success in facing a variety of extreme weather conditions in perhaps the lowest-powered aircraft for its weight ever constructed, especially given that they flew while cramped together in a small horizontal phone-booth-sized cabin.

To achieve this flight, the designers had to build the most highly loaded (overall weight divided by wing area) and lightest wing ever built. Because the airplane was designed to fly slowly, the aspect ratio (wingspan divided by average chord or width) was designed to minimize the lift drag. Exotic building materials of carbon fiber and epoxy sandwich skins used on the wing and airframe greatly lessened the overall weight. The resulting wing was touted as the strongest of its type ever built, able to bend about thirty degrees from the horizontal. The experimental canard-boom, another unique design of the aircraft, helped to solve difficult structural problems. The boom fuel weight was situated ahead of the wings, as additional lift in the front and was provided by the canard surface. The booms of cylindrical shape had a greater volume to wetted area (exposed to airflow) than a wing, and their presence was less of a hindrance for both drag and structural weight. Because Voyager was so radically different in design concept from other aircraft, direct commercial or military spin-offs were not immediately forthcoming, but there was interest in using the carbon-honeycomb materials used in Voyager in the building of long-range transport and reconnaissance aircraft.

Public interest in the flight was greater than expected. Long before the round-the-world flight took off, while Voyager was in the testing phase, the news media carried almost daily reports about the airplane and its crew. Initially, the project depended on grassroots support; the designers solicited small donations from any aviation enthusiasts who were willing to contribute. As the project grew, so did the numbers of engineering and technical personnel involved. This was important in the latter stages of the project, when major aircraft and avionics companies agreed to help. Hartzell Propeller, Hartzell Propeller for example, provided the engineering for the new propeller shapes. Each propeller required sixteen different airfoil sections, which were carved by a computer-directed milling machine.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Voyager project was the reaffirmation that the dedication of a small group of people can bring about the accomplishment of a very difficult task. It is this kind of spirit that allows humankind to challenge new frontiers in aviation. Voyager (aircraft)
Aviation;flight records

Further Reading

  • Garrison, Peter. “Sketchy Details: Who Really Designed Voyager.” Flying 114 (July, 1987): 20-22. Discusses the reasons for Voyager’s canard-boom combination design as well as the initial problems in getting the aircraft airborne.
  • _______. “Voyager Flight Fantastic: They Made It with Fourteen Gallons to Spare.” Flying 114 (March, 1987): 28-35. Discusses some of the highly technical problems that had to be solved before Voyager began its world flight. Examines the engineering work that went on behind the scenes concerning such elements as the aircraft’s airfoils, fuel efficiency and range, propeller design, and avionics.
  • Heppenheimer, T. A. A Brief History of Flight: From Balloons to Mach 3 and Beyond. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000. Presents all the major developments in the evolution of human flight, along with information on the people involved, in an entertaining way. Chapter 24 is devoted to Voyager. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Marbach, William D., and Peter McAlevey. “Up, Up, and Around.” Newsweek, December 13, 1986, 33-44. Dramatic moments of the Voyager flight are captured in this news article. Seven color photographs and two color diagrams show the interior of the pilots’ cockpit and the location of the seventeen fuel tanks; a map shows the path of the world flight.
  • Norris, Jack. Voyager: The World Flight. Northridge, Calif.: Author, 1987. Reference work on the flight was compiled by the technical director of Voyager mission control. Includes a brief history of the project, with many important statistics of the flight from weights to airspeeds. Tables relate such factors as effect of altitude, engine speed, and coefficient of lift on flight performance.
  • Yeager, Jeana, and Dick Rutan, with Phil Patton. Voyager. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Narrative description of the flight by both pilots includes memories from their earlier years that led up to their involvement with the Voyager project. Features eighty-one black-and-white photographs and fourteen full-color photographs.

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