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'Dick Rutan was, and will forever be, Misty Four-Zero'

Record-setting 'Voyager' flight only part of his story

A decorated war hero and aviation pioneer, Dick Rutan, who "played an airplane like someone plays a grand piano," in the words of his younger brother, met death on his own terms on May 3, with his wife and family by his side.

Dick Rutan, Vietnam War veteran and U.S. Air Force 'Misty Four-Zero' fighter pilot, speaks to the audience during a dedication ceremony held at the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor on Ford Island, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, on October 30, 2014. ‘Misty’ pilots reunited for a panel discussion, a book signing event, and the dedication of a restored North American F-100 Super Sabre, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Vietnam War. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Diana Quinlan.

A life begun 85 years ago in Loma Linda, California, included setting what his family called "the last great aviation record" with the nonstop flight around the world in the Rutan Model 76 Voyager, designed by younger brother Burt Rutan, in 1986. Dick Rutan's life ended on May 3 in a hospital in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, with his family and longtime friend Bill Whittle present. Whittle told the Associated Press that Rutan opted not to endure a second night on oxygen being administered to treat a lung infection.

Rutan flew 325 combat missions in Vietnam, part of an elite group of fighter pilots with the callsign "Misty" and the unenviable assignment of loitering for hours over enemy antiaircraft units, and enemy fire on one occasion forced him to eject from his North American F–100 Super Sabre. A second successful ejection was necessitated by mechanical failure over England. Rutan retired from the U.S. Air Force as a lieutenant colonel, having been awarded medals including the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross (twice), and Purple Heart, though he was by no means finished flying.

The Rutan brothers worked together on many projects, including Voyager—Burt designing cutting-edge aircraft in bunches, Dick flying them. On December 14, 1986, Dick Rutan and copilot Jeana Yeager, who helped build the aircraft with the Rutan brothers and crew chief Bruce Evans, launched Voyager from Edwards Air Force Base in California at 8:01:44 a.m. Pacific time, and flew west, nonstop, for nine days, three minutes, and 44 seconds, returning to land at Edwards, shattering the record for unrefueled flight and earning a Presidential Citizens Medal, presented to the two pilots and the aircraft's designer by President Ronald Reagan.

“We had the freedom to pursue a dream, and that’s important,” Dick Rutan said at the ceremony, according to the AP. “And we should never forget, and those that guard our freedoms, that we should hang on to them very tenaciously and be very careful about some do-gooder that thinks that our safety is more important than our freedom. Because freedom is awful difficult to obtain, and it’s even more difficult to regain it once it’s lost.”

Now in the collection of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Voyager's historic flight nearly ended before it began. Fully loaded with fuel for the first time, the carbon fiber wings drooped and scraped the runway as the aircraft accelerated with painful slowness to flying speed, damaging the winglets.

Burt Rutan, aboard a chase aircraft with Mike Melvill (who would later fly another Rutan design, SpaceShipOne, into space and open the age of civilian space flight), observed the damage and advised his brother and Yeager that the aircraft remained within limits, and the flight could continue.

Aboard Voyager, Rutan had been unable to see the dragging wingtips from the cramped confines of the pilot's seat, and he used more than 14,000 feet of runway before rotating.

“And then, the velvet arm really came in,” Burt Rutan said later, employing an oft-used description of his brother's masterfully smooth technique, according to the AP. “And he very slowly brought the stick back and the wings bent way up, some 30 feet at the wingtips, and it lifted off very smoothly.”

Rutan extended his first stint at the controls for three days before Yaeger took over. The two battled fatigue, and threaded their damaged aircraft around weather that might have shattered the airframe, Rutan having used a slip to side-load the aircraft and deposit the dangling, damaged winglets in the California desert before continuing into history.

The Voyager team won the 1986 Robert J. Collier Trophy, bestowed by the National Aeronautic Association "for the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America."

Richard Glenn Rutan joined the Air Force as a teenager, and honed skills (particularly a soft touch with aircraft that needed it) that served him well in his second act as a test pilot—frequently working with his brother on Scaled Composites projects, including a purpose-built race airplane designed by Rutan to take on the warbirds that dominated the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. The Pond Racer was a Burt Rutan design that Dick Rutan flew during testing ahead of the first trip to Reno in 1991, where AOPA Pilot caught up with the Rutan brothers and their team to report on the project commissioned by Bob Pond, also known as Rutan Model 158.

The twin-boom design was powered by automotive engines converted to run on methanol to reduce the cooling requirements. Rutan, who flew the first test flight on March 22, 1991, later reported that the cramped confines were uncomfortable, "but you don't have to spend much time there, either." Rutan reported minimal adverse yaw and good lateral stability, though pitch stability was marginal—a characteristic the Voyager pilot was accustomed to, aerodynamic instability having been induced by design in both aircraft in the name of performance.

"I thought at first the landings would be tough, but then I realized that you can see the ground coming up to meet the mains. It's a sweetheart," Rutan told AOPA. "This is a long way from Voyager."

The Pond Racer flew to Reno from the Scaled Composites factory, and, flown by Rick Brickert, qualified for the Silver class at 400 mph, though mechanical problems prevented it from starting the race. In 1993, the team returned to Reno, and Brickert flew it during qualifying, when the engine began leaking oil and caught fire. Brickert was killed in the ensuing accident, which the NTSB determined was caused by oil starvation and a connecting rod failure that caused a fuel-fed fire in the right engine.

Dick Rutan was not done testing unique aircraft. In 2005, he set another record in a 10-mile flight in a rocket-powered aircraft launched from Mojave, California, which held the distinction of being the first such aircraft to carry the U.S. mail, according to the AP. In 2014, Rutan took a more general aviation turn, piloting a Cirrus SR22 retrofitted with an eight-cylinder graphite block diesel engine, a mission that Engineered Propulsion Systems celebrated on YouTube. (Melvill, flying a Rutan Long-EZ, was in the chase aircraft that day, also.)

Scaled Composites President Greg Morris told the AP that Dick Rutan was "bigger than life, in every sense of the word." Morris noted of Rutan's achievements, from his service in Vietnam through Voyager, and the other aircraft he flew first, "any one of those contributions would make him a legend in aviation. All of them together, in one person, is just inconceivable."

The 'Voyager' aircraft circles before landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California on December 23, 1986, completing a record-breaking, nonstop unfueled flight around the world. The aircraft's takeoff weight was more than 10 times the structural weight, but its drag was lower than almost any other powered aircraft. The nine-day, three-minute, 44-second flight nearly doubled the previous distance record set in 1962 by a U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52. NASA photo.
Jim Moore
Jim Moore
Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: People

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