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Riders on the Storm : The Voyager Dodges Threatening Thunderclouds--and Death--Over Africa

October 25, 1987|JEANA YEAGER and DICK RUTAN and PHIL PATTON | In this excerpt from "Voyager," just published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan, on their historic around-the-world flight, are crossing Africa, one of the most difficult and dangerous legs of the journey. Rutan is piloting the plane.

NEVER HAD WE seen thunderstorms so active and boiling as these. It was a movie of weather, run at high speed.

There was a saddleback in the clouds ahead. Could we get high enough to make it? That was our only chance, the only gap. It was closing in fast, a solid wall up to 50,000 feet where those giant anvils hung, ready to drop on us.

The wingtips were scraping the clouds. We couldn't see the ends of them--we didn't want to look at them anyway but wanted to know they were there.

There was another opening, and we headed for it. Now we pushed the engines for best power, forgetting range. We just kept going, kept hoping and praying, and remembered there was no way we could stick Voyager into one of those clouds, no way.

But then I realized that Jeana wasn't saying anything. I watched her reflection in the radar screen while I flew, and I could see that her position was very strange. She was lying there just like a cat, on knees and elbows, hands forward, but with her face flat on the floor. I called her on the intercom, but there was no response.

"Jeana, you've got to stay awake."

She'd never slept like this.

She'd been trying to stay awake, help dodge the storms, but she just couldn't.

I reached over and touched her. She was cool to my touch. There was no blinking light on her oxygen! She wasn't breathing!

Then, flying the airplane with my right hand, I reached over with my left to rub her back and neck. No reaction. I shook hard, rubbed her shoulders and neck and shook again.

All of a sudden she came back to life, leaping up, almost hitting the roof. "What?"

"God, I thought you were dead," I said groggily, and I realized I wasn't feeling very good either. "I didn't mean to wake you. I just wanted to see if you were alive."

She had a headache, and she dropped right back to sleep. The bulb was out. The damned oxygen-indicator bulb had burned out. The only way to see if she was getting oxygen was to turn around and watch the pressure gauge in back to see her pulse. You have to be careful with oxygen. Jeana couldn't stay awake, but if you're not careful you don't ever wake up--or you wake up with a headache you have the rest of your life. I worried about this, and about whether I was in any shape to make sure she was getting oxygen while flying the plane and dodging thunderstorms. If she was dead, what would I do? Land? Fly on with a corpse? I felt all alone.

We were still at 20,000 feet, and I kept shaking her every so often to wake her. It took a while, but when she came back to life, she exploded. "What, what, what is it?!" she said, and her eyes were darting back and forth in a way I'd never seen before. But then I had to turn my attention back to flying the airplane and dodging thunderstorms, and as soon as I did Jeana would fall right back down, on her hands and knees again, catlike, passed out with her face on the floor. It must have happened a dozen times.

I wanted to hug her and hold her on my lap, but I couldn't. If I didn't do what I had to do--fly and dodge those storms--we were both going to die.

We had underestimated the oxygen. Between her cold and her fatigue, she couldn't absorb enough, so I turned her valve up a little bit. Or did I? I thought. Did I already do that?

The altitude was getting to me, too. I began to notice something strange: The instrument panel was bulging, and all the dials and screens were swelling. Everything still seemed to be working. I wondered if it would blow up. We'd never been this high before. I reached over and shook Jeana's shoulder and slowly she woke up. "Look at that, look at that!" I said and pointed at the panel. "See how it's bulging all out? Do you see that? It may explode."

It was a foggy image I had, half hallucinatory, half reasoning. The instrument panel was bulging out toward me. The radar screen was swelling into a big glass blister, and the paper where we'd been marking off the days was arcing forward, about to pop off. The tape covering the deck level gauge was straining.

And the feed tank--it was bulging too. My God, I thought, if the feed tank bursts it'll be all over. It was funny--it had never done this before. We never anticipated it; we just didn't know what this altitude would do. Crazy of us to go this high, crazy. We should have tested it.

Soon, I was sure, the faces of the instruments would crack and shatter, and then the whole panel would burst. I reached out to try to push the panel back into place. Curiously, all the instruments were still working. There was still a clear image on the radar. There were still neat, luminous numbers on the screen of the Omega.

Then I realized there was nothing I could do about it. A strange calm began to overtake my anxiety. "Well," I thought, "if it blows up, it'll be real quick."

But what I saw kept gnawing at me. I reached over and woke Jeana one more time.

"Jeana, look at this," I said. "You see how the panel is swelling?"

"Well," she said, "it's . . . not . . . that . . . bad." Because she couldn't see anything wrong.

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