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Shattering the Myth : Voyager Couple Talk About Their Breakup

December 14, 1987|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

The flight ended exactly one year ago. The obligatory biography has been written. The unique, delicate, spindly parallelogram of an airplane they flew nonstop around the world has been hoisted to the ceiling of the Smithsonian Institution, where it will be dedicated today and dangle forever in dead flight.

The end? Not quite. . . .

The full momentum of Voyager continues for pilots Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan, who are still circling the world, California-to-California, without running out of gas.

This week, they fly first class to London for a television show with David Frost. Then to Singapore and Thailand for conglomerate conferences. There have been advertisements for Rolex (instead of one gold timepiece for himself, Rutan changed his honorarium to five gold and stainless steel aviation watches so members of the Voyager support crew would have their reward) and commercials for MasterCard. There are book signings.

It has all amounted to about 1.9 personal appearances a day for an entire year. Faceless airports. Endless jet lag. Continuous applause.

"We thought that by this time, by the end of this year, we would have a slower schedule," said Yeager. "But it is starting to look like next year before we start planning for a future."

Individual futures, that is.

Says Rutan: "The Voyager project was six years of very difficult, very trying times on our emotions and our psyches. Many good things happened but there also were casualties . . . and our relationship was one of the casualties."

Through their own, early decision, there was little talk of the personal lives of Rutan, 49, and Yeager, 35. Rutan's response to public questions about their relationship described them as business partners, friends and traveling companions. The discussions always returned to the airplane, its mission and their incredible achievement of flying around the world on one tank of gas. In nine days. 26,678 miles.

Yet their book, "Voyager," published by Alfred Knopf last week--with author Phil Patton--touches on their attraction that began at a Chino air show in 1980. They fell in love. They lived together in Mojave while Voyager was suggested, designed, built and flown.

Now they will discuss--but lightly and often contradicting each other on certain points--the destruction of that love.

For the interview, Yeager has deserted her wardrobe of jump suits (one style in five colors) that she wears for the tour and book signings and is showing her private, elegant persona in an indigo suit with white lace blouse. Rutan, also abandoning his jump suit, is handsomely dressed in a suede sport coat, collar and tie.

They were and are, they agree, opposites. Once-married Rutan, a 20-year Air Force officer and decorated Vietnam veteran, remains the super-confident, outspoken, short-fused, gregarious, impulsive, cowboy fighter pilot. Once-married Yeager is much the gentler, a horsewoman, a sailor, a patient administrator, thinker and thoroughly shy public speaker.

She is stubborn. He is dogmatic. She was a night person. He was day. She needed privacy to work, to be alone, to ride her horse. He grew jealous of time spent away from him.

They grew apart and some months before the flight, said Yeager, she was ready to dump Rutan and the Voyager project.

Relationship Strained

Rutan blames the breakup on the years of pressure and frustrations of the Voyager project. The analogy, he suggests, would be driving a car to the station to catch a train. The car engine springs an oil leak and there are two choices: repair the car and miss the train or make the train and risk ruining the car.

"We saw our problems but there just wasn't time to fix them," he explained. "So you keep driving . . . and by the time we got there, the thing was hopelessly destroyed.

"Now, most people break up and go their separate ways. We broke up and stayed together. It was the commitment to the project that kept us together. We had a dream and there were a lot of people involved and to deny them was intolerable. We had to get that car to the station no matter what got destroyed in the process."

Yeager offered a minor correction: " We didn't have a dream, we shared a dream with a lot of other people and we had a responsibility to live up to their expectations, to go beyond ourselves, skipping the book on relationships and fulfilling the dream to achieve their goal."

How did they handle the closeness of flight preparations and then the long, often-fearful, always-exhausting odyssey, cramped together for nine days in a cockpit no larger than a telephone booth?

"The transition from lovers to friends is difficult," acknowledged Rutan. "But one thing about Jeana and I . . . when we're together, she'll get mad at me and I'd get mad at her, but we'd never get mad at each other at the same time."

They were able to retain balance throughout, he said, because they were professionals functioning as test pilots, as partners of singular purpose.

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