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Life's a Blur to Fast-Flying Voyager Crew

May 04, 1987|PENELOPE McMILLAN | Times Staff Writer

SAN BERNARDINO — Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager were tired. There were circles under their eyes as they sat next to each other, answering questions.

Since December, when they made their record-breaking nonstop around-the-world flight without refueling in their homemade airplane, Voyager, they have done so hundreds of times.

This time, they were sitting on a desk at California State University, San Bernardino, before one of the speaking engagements for which they are paid between $10,000 and $20,000 each appearance.

Same Old Questions

Since Voyager touched down at Edwards Air Force Base on Dec. 23, Rutan and Yeager have been crisscrossing the United States--with side trips to Europe and Japan--for paid lectures at places like Cal State and unpaid appearances on behalf of Voyager sponsors. And they have learned that part of celebrity means being asked, over and over again, the same questions.

"What's next?" It came from a student this time.

Rutan dislikes that one. The tall, 48-year-old Rutan usually says he has "no comment," or mentions the book he and the petite, blue-eyed Yeager, 34, are writing.

But now, perhaps because he was so tired, the dark-haired former Air Force fighter pilot threw his right arm in a brief upward gesture and said: "That's the problem with this thing. What are you going to do next?"

He paused. The two aviators had spent years breaking lesser records before this, he said: "Then you end up in the World Series or the Olympics and you stand there and you own the Gold Medal. What do you do then?"

He paused again, gave a short laugh and said, "I'm going to savor the moment."

There have been many moments--the Citizen's Medal from President Reagan, an invitation to a White House dinner for French Premier Jacques Chirac, whirlwind tours of Paris, London and Tokyo.

Yet, while a lot has changed, the two pilots say, much has not.

Their simpler life style in Mojave has given way to constant travel, first-class accommodations, and instant recognition from strangers. But they are still chasing the dollar, as they did before the flight in quest of financial support for the Voyager.

Rutan claims they are not getting rich now, but are still trying to pay off "about $300,000" in debts. He refuses to disclose how much the Voyager project actually cost or how much has been paid back so far through current activities.

By the end of the year, "we'll probably be even with the world," he told a health sciences class at Cal State San Bernardino, before a formal lecture to about 700 students and local residents.

Rights for Movie

Before the flight, Rutan said, he and Yeager delivered lectures to much smaller groups and then "we'd run around the back before people could leave, and try to sell them a poster."

Now, according to Carlton Sedgeley, their New York speaking agent, the two make $10,000 for appearances at a college or university, $15,000 for a national association or corporation, and $20,000 for appearances outside the country. And when the lectures are over, people line up for autographs.

The movie rights to their story have been bought by Heritage Entertainment in West Los Angeles, president Skip Steloff said, for a "high six figure" price.

In San Bernardino, the two pilots wore matching maroon flight suits, with the words "Voyager" and their names angled in black and white across their chests. Each had pens stuck in holders sewn onto the outer sleeves.

They wear the suits at most appearances, alternating among five different colors, including the silver one worn in a Master Card commercial now running on television. On the actual flight, they had worn simple jogging suits from K mart.

The pair maintains such a grueling schedule that the various cities and towns they visit, Yeager said, "get like a blur." In the week before their visit to San Bernardino, the two had done paid speaking engagements for the Boy Scouts in Columbus, Ohio, students at Oklahoma State University, and a women's conference in Anaheim.

They had also, for no fee, done what Yeager calls "give-back days" to Voyager sponsors, and there are actually more of these than paid appearances. Before the flight, "We bartered a lot of ourselves for the materials," she said.

So that same week, they had also made publicity appearances in Olathe, Kan., for King Radio, which designed their navigational equipment; in Piqua, Ohio, for Hartzell Corp., the makers of their propellers; in Denver, Colo., for Beech Aircraft Corp., which lent them a private airplane; and in Los Angeles for Lawry Foods, which donated money to the project.

In a typical example of the way they spend their time, one day Rutan flew the borrowed airplane from Denver--after opening a new Beech facility--to Mojave. Then he took a commercial flight to Kansas City, Mo., to meet Yeager, who had just spent Easter Sunday with strangers.

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