Voyager, piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, lands at Edwards Air Force Base in California becoming the first aircraft to fly non-stop around the world without aerial or ground refueling on December 23, 1986.
Voyager’s world flight takeoff took place on the longest runway at Edwards AFB at 8:01 am local time on December 14, 1986, with 3500 of the world’s press in attendance. As the plane accelerated, the tips of the wings, which were heavily loaded with fuel, were damaged as they unexpectedly flew down and scraped against the runway, ultimately causing pieces (winglets) to break off at both ends. (The pilot had wanted to gain enough speed that the inner wings, rather than the fragile outer wings, would lift the plane; in 67 test flights, the plane had never been loaded to capacity.) The aircraft accelerated very slowly and needed approximately 14,200 feet of the runway to gain enough speed to lift from the ground the wings arching up dramatically just before take-off. the two damaged winglets were removed by flying the Voyager at high speed at low altitude for the first hour of flight. Burt Rutan following with pilot Mike Melvill determined Voyager was still within its performance specifications despite the damage and decided to allow the flight to continue. During the flight, the two pilots had to deal with extremely cramped quarters. To reduce stress, the two had originally intended to fly the plane in three-hour shifts, but flight handling characteristics while the plane was heavy prevented routine changeovers and they became very fatigued. Rutan reportedly stayed at the controls without relief for almost the first three days of the flight.
The plane also continuously reminded the pilots of its pitch instability and fragility. They had to maneuver around bad weather numerous times, most perilously around the 600 mile wide Typhoon Marge. Libya denied access to the country’s airspace, forcing precious fuel to be used. There were contentious radio conversations between pilot Dick and his brother as Dick flew around weather and at one time, turned around and began doubling back. The belief of the ground was that he was flying the airplane sloppily and was wasting fuel. As they neared California to land, a fuel pump failed and had to be replaced with its twin pumping fuel from the other side of the aircraft.
In front of 55,000 spectators and large press contingent, including 23 live feeds breaking into scheduled broadcasting across Europe and North America, the plane safely came back to earth, touching down at 8:06 am at the same airfield 9 days after take off. Rutan made three dramatic and agonizing low passes over the landing field before putting voyager down. The average speed for the flight was 116 miles per hour. There was 106 lbs of fuel remaining in the tanks, only about 1.5% of the fuel they had at take off.
Sanctioned by the FAI and the AOPA, the flight was the first successful aerial non stop, non refueled circumnavigation of the Earth that included two passes over the Equator (as opposed to shorter ostensible “circumnavigations” circling the North or South Pole).