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'Ground Crew' Keeps Busy at Mojave Hangar : For Pilots' Families, It's a Time to Wait

December 18, 1986|PENELOPE McMILLAN | Times Staff Writer

MOJAVE — At one of several press briefings this week in a cold, drafty hangar at Mojave Airport, a small, blue-eyed elderly woman squeezed herself, along with her daughter, between the reporters and television cameras.

They listened while spokesmen for the experimental Voyager aircraft talked about the attempt by pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager to fly around the world. Rutan was described as "testy" and apparently unwilling to follow advice that he share the controls with his co-pilot.

The old woman smiled knowingly to her daughter.

"Sounds about right," said Irene Rutan, the pilot's mother.

A few yards away, George Rutan, a 70-year-old retired dentist who is Dick Rutan's father, was busy trying to stop the corrugated metal walls of the hangar from rattling in the desert wind. Lee Yeager, Jeana Yeager's 68-year-old father, put down his video camera and went to help.

For the last five years, they have been among a core group that helped turn Voyager from a dream into reality. Before the corporate sponsors, before the media attention, it was family members, friends, aviation professionals and flying buffs--about 45 of them--who donated time to install engines, sell souvenirs and sweep floors. Now, as the world focuses on the two pilots aloft, these others are still there, though hardly noticed.

"There's a closeness to the group," said Lee Yeager, a retired teacher from Campbell, Tex. He noted that the house where Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager live, which is owned by Rutan's parents, also functions as a sort of a bunkhouse for the workers he calls the "Voyager family."

The support group includes Dick Rutan's brother, Burt, a designer of light aircraft who drew the plans for Voyager, aviation engineers on unpaid leave from their jobs, even a National Park Service ranger from Yosemite who is donating time as office manager. Only four staff members are paid.

The group coalesced over the years, collected by word of mouth and plain curiosity, as technician Fergus Fay put it, about "what are these nuts doing?"

"Once people understood the challenge, then they wanted to become part of it," added Fay, 68, an engineer retired from Rockwell International's space division. He originally agreed to work for two weeks helping to install the Voyager's engines. That was two years ago.

Fay, like others, calls the Voyager "a grass-roots effort," although one hangar wall is covered with the logos of corporate sponsors, including Mobil Oil Corp., which is supplying the fuel, Shaklee Corp., which has given food, and Audi, which recently gave the Voyager pilots new cars. Most of the sponsors have come aboard in the last year.

The front area of the hangar has been turned into a small souvenir shop for fund-raising purposes, selling Voyager shirts, tie pins, hats, and even Shaklee's "Voyager soup." On weekends, it is run by George and Irene Rutan, who otherwise functions, she said, as the "cookie baker." George Rutan said he also washes and dusts Voyager when it is there.

During the last week, Nell Rutan, the pilot's 44-year-old sister, an American Airlines flight attendant, has taken her turn behind the shop's counter.

When the Voyager was still in the hangar, as many as 200 visitors would show up on a weekend, and George Rutan would usher them up to a deck overlooking the hangar, show a video about the spindly plane and answer questions.

"We get all kinds of people," he said, "people that don't know anything about airplanes and gung-ho jet jockeys, people in test pilot school. People say it's smaller than they thought; that's the most common impression."

About a year ago, the Mojave Chamber of Commerce put up three billboards heralding the town as "Home of the Voyager" on the roads leading into the community of 3,100, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. The hangar visitors have been "profitable" for local businesses, chamber president Michele Behrens said, adding proudly: "It's put Mojave on the map."

Now, in the absence of the "big bird," as staffers sometimes call Voyager, the hangar floor is empty save for two small planes owned by volunteers and a single-engine, high performance homemade craft owned by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager.

Inscribed on the side of the plane, which was designed by Burt Rutan, are the couple's endurance and speed records and the name "D&J's Key." The name, Irene Rutan explained, was symbolic of the frustration the couple had when they had trouble borrowing Burt Rutan's plane. "They had to ask for the key whenever they wanted to fly somewhere," she said. So they built their own, "and called it "D&J's Key."

The pair met at an air show about six years ago and have been close companions ever since, according to family members. Staffers say they are very different, describing the 48-year-old Rutan, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, as forceful and outgoing and the 34-year-old Jeana Yeager, also an experienced pilot, as extremely shy. They share an enormous drive and single-minded determination.

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