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Don Lee: Flight around the world had a dangerous start on the runway

If you have been reading this weekend column, you know that I have been writing about the epic flight around the world with Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager.

Just as little review, they took off with 1168.6 gallons of gasoline and landed with 17.7 gallons.
They took off on the 15,000 foot-runway at the Edwards Air Force base. They used 14,200 feet of the runway. It was the first time they had attempted a takeoff of the Voyager with a full fuel load.

Dick Rutan’s concern about the drooping wings was well founded. Both wing ends, where the winglet had been added to increase the wing efficiency, dragged on the runway and were damaged. The left one came off and the right one was damaged. Dick consulted with the experts on the ground and decided to go with what they had.

Dick did a slip, which caused the other damaged winglet to finish breaking off. They had no means to dump fuel and it would have been very hazardous to land with a nearly full fuel load.

They flew on west with Dick at the controls for the first three days straight. As I have mentioned in an earlier column, Riley Stevens, my son-in-law, and I had an opportunity to talk to him for about 10 minutes at the Experimental Aircraft Association museum.

He told us at that time, that he did almost all the flying. The plane had no automatic pilot and needed constant hands on flying and it was very hard to change pilots in the cramped space. All the fuel lines came through the cockpit in plastic lines. The balancing of the flow from the 17 tanks would have been a headache with a wide-awake person, but, with very tired pilots, it surely was a challenge.

They had to fly around bad weather and also around the huge typhoon, Marge.

Libya refused permission to fly over. At one time, they turned back, but stuck to it and continued. They departed on Dec. 14, 1986 at 8:06 a.m. and landed 9 days 11 minutes and 44 seconds later back at Edwards Air Force Base. They flew a total of 26,366 miles.

That is a record that will be hard to beat. They lost the fuel pump during the last few hours, but were able to activate the spare to keep flying. They made three low passes over the field before landing in view of an estimated 55,000 people. After being dead tired, Dick greased in that landing, just kissing the runway as it settled down.

Dick had grown quite a beard and both were dressed in what looked like freshly laundered pajamas.

I believe that the next time it flew, I saw it land at the EAA’s convention at Oshkosh, Wisconsin in July 1987. It was on the way to the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C.

Dick told us, when we visit it, to look at the after part of the fuselage, “That yellow stain is my urine.”

Don Lee, a pilot flying out of Lawrence County Airport since 1970, has been in charge of equipment and grounds maintenance for the last several years. He can be reached at eelnod22@gmail.com