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The Ultimate Red-Eye : Two Pilots Steel Themselves for Their Round-the-World Endurance Test

August 24, 1986|LEE DYE

By the third night, Dick Rutan knew he had to get some sleep.

After one false start that had ended with an emergency landing, Rutan and Jeana Yeager had taken off at 2:52 p.m. on July 10 for a shot at a world record in their experimental plane, the Voyager.

Their immediate goal was to fly the spindly aircraft farther in a closed loop than anyone had ever flown before. That would put them in the record books and move them a step closer to their ultimate goal: flying around the world without stopping or refueling even once.

But just a few hours into the July flight, they had already plenty of cause for second thoughts about the chances of completing a round-the-world flight of almost 12 days, scheduled for sometime next month.

They earlier had flown 47 trial flights, none of more than two days' duration. None had tested the pilots for this five-day flight up and down the Pacific Coast.

Noise was their constant companion, sleep their potential executioner.

The Voyager is an awkward beast, designed for the single purpose of an austere trip around the globe. Its disproportionate wingspan (110.8 feet) enables it to carry more than four times its weight in fuel (1,500 gallons weighing almost 9,000 pounds), but as a result the aircraft is difficult to maneuver. The plane carries two people but has a seat for only one. While one person pilots, the other lies flat in a cramped area not much bigger than the front seat of a standard passenger car.

For the pilots, even changing places is a monumental chore. The cockpit is only four feet wide at its widest point and seven feet long--and some of the room is taken up with instruments and controls. The 6-foot-2 Rutan would push the seat back as far as it would go, while Yeager, a 5-foot, 4-inch whisper of a woman who holds seven flying records (she is not related to famed test pilot Chuck Yeager), slid onto a small shelf along the left side. "I would roll out to the left while Jeana stayed on the shelf, and then slide back into the bunk," he said.

In theory, that should have permitted one person to sleep while the other flew. But the arrangement left Rutan with his head banging against the bulkhead that separates the cockpit from the four-cylinder, 100-horsepower aft engine. (A forward engine is used only on takeoffs.) On the ground, the Voyager doesn't sound much noisier than a small car. But to a pilot pushed against the engine, the drone becomes an inescapable roar.

"The Voyager was not constructed with any consideration to noise abatement, and you're sitting on the engine," Rutan recalled. (Helmets similar to those worn by the Apollo astronauts are being designed to protect the pilots' hearing.)

The pilots had decided that Rutan--who had flown hundreds of combat missions over Vietnam--would fly at night, Yeager during the day. Pilots grow tired very quickly at night, and even minor problems can take on seemingly horrifying dimensions. Rutan wanted that duty himself.

All day and through the first night, the plane droned up and down the coast between San Luis Obispo and San Francisco at just less than 100 m.p.h. The goal was to trace the route 20 times, covering more than 11,000 miles and breaking a 1962 distance record and an endurance record of 84 hours set in 1931.

The plane is flown on automatic pilot once it reaches cruising altitude, because the pilots quickly would become exhausted if they had to constantly fight to control the plane. Even so, both pilots had their hands full.

"The flight was not just to set a world record," Rutan explained. "The majority was for data acquisition." That meant filling out endless paper work. They kept records of everything they ate or drank, when they went to the bathroom, when they slept. In an effort to determine their psychological adaptability to the ordeal, both pilots continually jotted down their feelings about how the flight was going. In addition, they constantly recorded instrument readings and logged all radio communications.

The first day breezed by, filled with excitement. Rutan piloted all day and through the night, and the next morning turned the controls over to Yeager. As he contorted his way into the bunk, he met the real enemy:

"I couldn't sleep."

The bunk was so small that Rutan had cut off the end of an air mattress to make it fit. But he had not sealed the cut adequately, and the air quickly escaped. Yeager had brought a few pieces of foam aboard, and Rutan slipped them under the mattress. "But every time I would shift a little, my hip would slide off and bang into the floor," he said.

Always there was the noise, a sickening thunder roaring in his ears from an engine literally inches away. And his body rebelled.

"Your body has to believe it is secure," Rutan said. "It's difficult to go to sleep if you think you are going to die in a few minutes. After a few hours, you're just a vegetable."

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