Gossamer Dream

updated 08/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Touch the wing and an eerie thing happens. A shudder runs through the entire aircraft. Measuring 111 feet from tip to tip, the wingspan of the spindly apparition exceeds that of a Boeing 727—but at 1,858 pounds it weighs less than a Volkswagen Rabbit. And are you ready for this? The wings are made partly of balsa wood, combined with a foam core and graphite.

The pure white plane is the Voyager, latest dream machine of Rutan Aircraft Factory, a vest-pocket enterprise set up at a World War II training field in the Mojave Desert 100 miles north of L.A. With 130 designs to its credit but just four employees on the payroll, Rutan is the creator of ultralight "home-builts," planes for which the firm sells plans and materials. President and design chief Burt Rutan, 41, claims his wispy home brews make the more familiar Cessnas and Pipers look, in his words, like "Spam cans."

And now there is Voyager, the ultimate featherweight aircraft, conceived to take on one of the most daring stunts in aviation history: a 25,000-mile nonstop flight around the world without refueling. Burt's partners in Voyager are his older brother Dick, 46, a retired Air Force pilot, and Dick's 32-year-old girlfriend and co-pilot for the venture, Jeana Yeager.

Dick and Jeana, a bouncy, 97-pounder who got her pilot's license seven years ago, live together on his Air Force pension in a house in Mojave provided by Dick's parents. For the past three years they spent seven-day weeks helping Burt create Voyager. "Originally we were thinking about an aerobatics plane," says Dick, "but Burt got excited about designing to fly around the world." To which Burt comments, "No one ever tried it before, so that became our goal."

To reach the goal Dick and Jeana, who revels in her nickname "Little Kid" ("Men don't feel threatened by me," she says), will spend 12 days squeezed into fuselage space measuring only two feet by 13 feet. Every other available inch of Voyager's structure is devoted to the key element in the record-breaking task—that is, carrying 8,934 pounds of fuel, almost five times the plane's weight. Indeed, so crucial is fuel supply and on-board weight to the trip that Jeana was tapped for duty almost as much for her minisize as for her skills as a pilot. Every human pound, according to Dick, who weighs in at 167, requires six additional pounds of fuel to keep the plane in the air.

The trio that created Voyager seems beautifully matched. As a boy in Dinuba, Calif. Burt was "always into model and toy airplanes." Today he is a problem-solving engineer. "We take pride in doing something," he says, "at a tenth of the cost by eliminating unnecessary details." Dick, who soloed at 16, is an adventurer who proudly claims he clocked more hours (325 missions) over Vietnam than any other American. Says he of his war duty: "We were down in the weeds trying to find targets. It was absolutely exciting." Meanwhile Jeana Yeager, from Fort Worth, Texas, has become the additive that makes the whole operation sparkle. "I always wanted to try things," she enthuses.

There are still plenty of rough edges to the enterprise, however. One is money, which they have scraped together in small handfuls. Hercules Aerospace has donated 90 percent of the materials for the plane, at a cost of $80,000. They've had other offers of help from overseas concerns, but they're determined to keep the project ail-American. "We got real patriotic when it came to foreign sponsors," says Burt. "We said, 'No, damn it! We're not going to do that because it will look as if they had something to do with the technology.' "

Most of all there are the hazards of the Wild Blue Yonder, especially the problem posed by the effects of turbulence. A month ago Jeana and Dick planned on making a nonstop 10,000-mile test flight of three laps between Mojave and Oshkosh, Wis., where an Experimental Aircraft Association show was being held. They got as far as Daggett, Calif., roughly 100 miles from home, when instrument difficulties forced them back. Next morning they took off again, only to run into rough air that forced them down in Salina, Kans. after an exhausting 12-hour battle with the elements. "The airplane is too green yet," Jeana says cheerfully, observing that problems of this sort are common in launching new aircraft.

Meanwhile Dick and Jeana are planning to do isometric exercises to tone their muscles during almost two weeks of living in the cramped little cockpit. "It's going to be like camping," says Jeana. "Only you don't get to hike on this trip."

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