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A Look Back to a Voyager of Yesteryear

January 02, 1987|JO LEES COOPER | Cooper is secretary of the Early Birds of Aviation Inc

With the Voyager's non-refueling trip around the globe establishing a new world's record, I wonder if someone won't look back on it in 50 or 55 years as antiquated and almost humorous as I now look back on the last non-refueling record?

Walter Lees and Fred Brossy flew a specially designed Packard Bellanca monoplane in May, 1931, for 84 hours 32 minutes to establish the world's record for duration without refueling, a record that stood until 1986. (Voyager broke that record during one of its longer test runs and then established the modern record with last month's globe-circling flight of 216 hours, 3 minutes and 44 seconds--just over nine days.)

In 1931 there was no television coverage. There wasn't even any radio air-to-ground contact. The ground crew painted weather forecasts on the fuselage of the observation plane that flew up once a day to check on them.

Lees and Brossy flew in circles around an observation post at the beach at Jacksonville, Fla. According to Lees' journal, one day they painted, "Throw Lees out. He's only excess weight!" on one side of the observation plane. Lees was known by pioneer aviators as an avid practical joker, so he loved this. Their small plane weighed a total of 6,750 pounds and the fuel was carried in two large wing tanks plus a cabin filled with five-gallon cans. As each small can was emptied they would tie a message to it for the ground crew and drop it out.

They didn't rip off a wing tip when taking off as Voyager did, but they did have one in-the-air accident. One empty fuel can that they dropped overboard lodged under the stabilizer, ripping a hole in the fuselage.

Lees recalled, "I pulled myself backwards on the bottom of the fuselage with only fabric and a few cross wires between me and the ocean 3,000 feet below. With my head toward the tail and my feet toward the engine I could stretch and just get hold of the can. It was so narrow where I was I couldn't move. Thank goodness in spite of my grade school teachers tying my hand behind my back, I was still left-handed, and with the curved needle I'd brought, I could sew up the hole after dislodging the can." About 10:30 p.m. the third night, Lees had crawled into the hammock for a little snooze. A few minutes later Fred Brossy poked him and pointed down below, "Something's wrong with the crowd down there. Look, the cars are running around in circles and they've started a big bonfire." The ground crew was just letting them know that they had beaten the previous French 75-hour record.

If Lees and Brossy were alive today, I know they would wish the Voyager crew well, but would laugh about some of the differences. They had a chamber pot and home-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches versus the technology and concentrated foods available today.

At first Lees and Brossy thought fried chicken would be the best food to take, but after two unsuccessful attempts they learned to pare their food supply down to 18 sandwiches. They also carried a canned heat outfit to make tea and coffee, a vacuum bottle of hot coffee and one of hot beef soup, three gallons of water in a tin, which had a rubber tube inserted in the top from which they could drink, and a few "emergency rations"--candy bars.

"Strange as it may seem to those who have not made long flights," Lees said, "one has an empty feeling but does not become hungry, or at least does not feel like eating. Nearly everything we ate had to be forced down, as we realized food was necessary to keep up our strength."

Although Lees learned to fly in 1912, soloed Billy Mitchell, and trained World War I pilots, he was most proud of his endurance record.

Congratulations Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan for your round-the-world non-refueling record, but watch out. In another 50 years you'll be considered pioneer aviators too. Records are really only made to be broken by the most high adventurer.

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