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Remembering Dick Rutan and his non-stop flight around the world

On December 23, 1986, a plane landed at Edwards AFB. This in itself wouldn’t mean much, but this particular the plane had just made history. Piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, the Rutan Model 76 Voyager had just completed its nonstop flight around the world after taking off from this same runway just over nine days earlier. Designed by Dick’s younger brother, Burt Rutan, this plane and this flight will forever speak to the world’s imagination, even as we say goodbye to Dick “Killer” Rutan.

Dick Rutan (right) and Jeana Yeager (left) standing next to the Voyager plane in 1986. (Source: Ray Kamm collection)
Dick Rutan (right) and Jeana Yeager (left) standing next to the Voyager plane in 1986. (Source: Ray Kamm collection)

Born Richard Glenn Rutan on July 1, 1938, he spent his military career in the United States Air Force, first working with radar systems before beginning pilot training in the 1960s. He flew 325 sorties over Vietnam (once ejected) and served for many years while accumulating numerous awards and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring in 1978.

After that, he would fly as a test pilot for a range of aircraft, including a modified Rutan Long-EZ: the XCOR EZ-Rocket in 2001. Yet no flight will be as memorable as the record-breaking flight of the Rutan Voyager, which saw the world’s media follow the plane’s journey around the world, including live broadcasts whenever the plane was within range of national broadcasters. Despite nine days of intense flying and a few mechanical failures and damaged wingtips (due to fuel-laden wings scraping the runway), the flight went as well as could have been hoped, thanks to the piloting skills of Dick and Jeana.

Dick Rutan died on May 3, 2024 at the age of 85 after a long struggle with the consequences of Long COVID. He will be greatly missed by the aviation community and countless others, but his accomplishments will never be forgotten.