Today, we fly non-stop around the world. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Most of us know about the
25,000-mile globe-girdling flight that Dick Rutan
and Jeana Yaeger made in 1986, in their
experimental airplane, Voyager. But do
we fully appreciate that accomplishment? To begin
with, they had to double the previous distance
record to get all the way around the world in one
bite. Before that flight, the competing
requirements for fuel, and for the power to haul it
around, seemed to diverge beyond about 12,000
miles. If you make an airplane bigger so it'll
carry more fuel, the amount of fuel you need
outruns the carrying capacity.
Dick Rutan's brother Burt, an airplane designer and
builder, thought he could beat that equation with
modern materials and an outrageous design. Five
years and $2,000,000 later, the airplane was
finished. It weighed just over 1800 pounds, but it
had a greater wingspan than a Boeing 727. Its two
light engines made up half that weight. Into this
flying gas tank they poured 7000 pounds of fuel.
Eighty percent of the weight of the loaded airplane
The fuel-filled wings so drooped on takeoff that
they dragged on the runway until pieces fell off.
The takeoff took 3 miles, and then this flimsy,
overloaded machine spent almost three hours clawing
its way up to a cruising altitude of 8000 feet.
Rutan, the more experienced of the two, did most of
the flying. For nine sleepless days and nights,
cramped in a frightfully noisy cabin -- only two
feet wide -- Rutan and Yeager dodged storms, fought
off hallucinations, and battled mechanical
problems. After 216 hours in the air, they finally
brought Voyager home with just 18
gallons of fuel left in her tanks.
So what did they accomplish? Well, more than you
might think! Working without government or
corporate support, they proved the feasibility of
flying an airplane made so completely of new
composite materials that it could almost have
fooled a metal detector. The plane was a flying
design laboratory. Their flight experience with
these ideas was worth countless millions of dollars
in wind-tunnel tests. And they made it clear that,
if there is a distance barrier in flight, it's far
greater than anyone had supposed.
But above all they showed us that the human spirit
is still alive and kicking -- still willing to beat
a really tough challenge for the sheer excitement
of it. What they really did was to pump life into
all of us by doing something extraordinary.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds