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Voyager Crew 'Coming Home' : Pilots Make It Through Turbulence Over Africa

December 20, 1986|LEE DYE | Times Science Writer

MOJAVE — The lonely Voyager headed out over the Atlantic on Friday after flying through African storms so turbulent that pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager were bruised from being bounced off the roof of their tiny cabin.

"I'm coming home," Rutan said.

The plane, with more than enough fuel left to complete its historic journey, could land at the nearby Edwards Air Force Base as early as Tuesday evening. Because of strong tail winds that were pushing it along at about 165 m.p.h. Friday, the Voyager was flying about twice the expected speed.

Its course the rest of the way will depend on weather, but Voyager meteorologist Len Snellman said he does not see any storms on the horizon rivaling what the crew and the spindly craft have already endured.

From a weather standpoint, he said, the preferred course appears to be from Jamaica west across the Gulf of Mexico, north over Mexico and then California. But this course could change considerably as the Voyager gets closer to home.

On Friday, the small hangar at the Mojave Airport, home of the Voyager, was alive with anticipation as the realization began sinking in among exhausted workers that the impossible dream may be coming true.

The Voyager has already flown much farther than any aircraft has ever flown without refueling. Upon completion, the flight would mark the completion of the first nonstop flight around the world without refueling--more than doubling the previous distance record.

The sprawling Edwards Air Force Base will be open to the public for the landing. The Voyager left there at 8 a.m. Sunday.

On Friday, an emotional Lee Herron, a Voyager official who has been with the project almost since its inception, told of getting a call from Rutan while the Voyager neared the west coast of Africa just as darkness calmed the turbulent skies.

"He said I just wanted to hear your voice," Herron recalled, his voice breaking. "It made me feel like a million."

"It's so dark; there's not a light anywhere," he quoted Rutan as saying.

"I told him there's a light at the end of the tunnel," Herron said.

A fear that the plane might have burned more fuel than expected and not have enough to finish the flight all but vanished Friday when three tests conducted while the plane flew across Africa confirmed that there is far more fuel aboard than logs indicated.

Burt Rutan, the co-pilot's brother and the Voyager's designer, said that while accompanied by a chase plane from Nairobi, the Voyager was put through a series of tests, including two climbing maneuvers. Since the weight of the plane affects its performance, flight engineers were able to tell that the Voyager was far heavier than feared and thus has about 1,000 pounds more fuel than believed earlier in the week.

"That's an enormous number," Rutan said, and it should give the crew so much spare fuel that they could speed up when they get closer to home or fly over the desert for "three or four" days if weather were to prevent them from landing.

By all accounts, the trip across Africa was harrowing.

A report posted in the Voyager hangar Friday noted that the crew's status was "excellent, except for sores from turbulence impact with cabin roof and floor."

Rutan and Yeager had to put on oxygen masks repeatedly as the Voyager climbed as high as 20,000 feet to clear mountain ranges and fierce storms. At one point, Rutan radioed:

"I'm in severe turbulence. How do I get out of it?"

Back at Mojave, Snellman looked at satellite weather photos of the area and directed the pilot to a safer course.

Such navigation was repeated over and over as the Voyager cut across Kenya, passed over Lake Victoria and the Ugandan city of Entebbe, and continued on across the Congo River basin as the sun turned the unstable air into one storm after another.

But by nightfall, the air had stilled, and the Voyager slipped over the coast of west Africa just to the south of a 13,435-foot volcano, Cameroon Mountain.

Dr. George Jutila, the flight surgeon, said Friday that Rutan and Yeager had consumed only about 10% of the food they were to have eaten by now, but he said he is not worried.

"They can go the whole trip without eating," he said. "But they cannot go one day without drinking." Without fluids, he said, the crew would suffer from dehydration.

He said that before the flight he told Rutan, who tends to follow his own medical advice rather than the doctor's:

"Don't you dare go without the water. I don't care what you eat."

Jutila said his concerns about some permanent loss of hearing by the pilots had been eased slightly after learning early Friday that an electronic device was working better than he had thought in suppressing engine noise. The device cancels out certain frequencies, and Jutila said he had been under the impression that it was not working.

However, he said he has since learned that it works, although it cannot be used while the pilots are transmitting on the radio or communicating with each other. Thus it is not usable for a substantial part of the trip.

Jutila said he still believes that could lead to some loss in hearing for the crew.

"Dick and Jeana had both accepted this as a risk. They also knew they were going to come back black and blue. They accepted that," Jutila said.

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