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Voyager Past Unofficial Halfway Mark, Heading For Africa

December 18, 1986

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The experimental aircraft Voyager today broke its own distance mark as it crossed the Indian Ocean and headed for Africa in a historic bid to circle the globe without refueling.

The craft eclipsed the 11,600-mile mark it set in July, said project spokesman Bob Brubaker.

Ground control crews also received unofficial word that the craft had passed the halfway mark of 12,500 miles on its journey, but couldn’t confirm that with the pilots because of bad radio communications, Brubaker said.

After a 45-minute conversation with pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, officials at the Voyager hangar at Mojave Airport said the crew felt elated and ″bubbly″ as each mile carried them toward new records.

Rutan in particular, was pleased to learn that Jeff Moore, a Voyager volunteer at Mojave airport, had named his newborn son after him, spokesman Lee Herron said.

″Jeana is very bubbly and ’up,‴ Herron said. ″Dick is piloting and very pleased that Voyager volunteer Moore’s new baby was named for him.″

At one point, Herron claimed ″we now own all unrefueled distance records.″ But he later retracted his statement, saying the ground crew was recalculating the distance flown by the aircraft.

At last confirmed report, at 7 a.m. PST, Voyager was about 800 miles east of the horn of Africa.

After passing Sri Lanka on Wednesday evening, Voyager broke the 11,235-mile unrefueled distance record in straight-line flight for a piston-driven plane set 20 years ago by a Lockheed P2V-1.

The craft also was expected today to break the 12,532-mile standard for absolute straight-line unrefueled distance set by an Air Force B-52 jet bomber in 1962.

Last July, the Voyager crew spent 111 hours traveling in circles over California to set a closed-course unrefueled distance record of 11,600.9 non- stop miles. That also bested a distance record set by an Air Force B-52H in 1962.

Information from the craft was sporadic because of poor communications, project spokesman Gary Gunnell said. ″We don’t know why, maybe it’s the weather. We’re not like the space shuttle, where we can pinpoint their location at all times,″ he said.

″The performance of the airplane is good at this point ... and currently they’re purposely emptying the (fuel) tanks on the wing to verify the credibility of the fuel meter,″ Gunnell said today.

Ground controllers also reported a suspected inaccurancy in a gauge which monitors hourly fuel consumption. It apparently gave a sligtly high false reading.

The pilots will run a known quantity of fuel from one part of the tank through a fuel gauge and into another part of the tank to determine the gauge’s accuracy, Gunnell said.

″If this should show that there’s more fuel available than the (meter) registered, it would mean that fuel consumption at this point is on target,″ he said. ″But we believe there’s plenty of fuel aboard even with this descrepancy.″

Burt Rutan, designer of the plane and brother of co-pilot Rutan, had said early Wednesday that the rest of the flight would be ″nip and tuck″ because of the amount of fuel used to dodge major storms in the Indian Ocean.

But another spokesman, Larry Cansler, said later in the day that there was no longer much concern about whether Voyager would have enough fuel in its 17 tanks to complete the flight. Its front engine was stopped after running a day longer than planned to circumvent the storms.

″Voyager is running efficiently on one engine at 11,000 feet, and we expect fuel consumption to be much better on the second half of the flight,″ he said.

Voyager passed over Sri Lanka at 8:30 p.m. PST Wednesday, more than 11,000 miles into the trip, and was heading toward the southern tip of India, Cansler said. The craft left Edwards Air Force Base on Sunday.

Sleep was also proving to be a problem for the two people aboard the cramped plane, but pilot Rutan followed the advice of the flight’s doctor to get more sleep. ″Dick got six solid hours of sleep during the last 24-hour period,″ Dr. George Jutila said Wednesday.

Jutila had insisted that Rutan, 48, trade his sleep shifts more regularly with co-pilot Yeager, 34, no relation to famed test pilot Chuck Yeager.

Larry Burch, the weather forecaster for Voyager, ordered the crew Wednesday to turn north and head for Sri Lanka and the tip of India.

Strong tailwinds from a Pacific storm had boosted Voyager’s speed to more than 150 mph Tuesday, but it decreased to 95 mph after clearing the storm.

Although the two-engine, propeller-driven plane’s 109-foot wingspan is longer than a Boeing 727′s, the crew has a total of only about 43 cubic feet cabin-cockpit space, about half that of a Honda Civic.

When one pilot is sitting in the 3-foot-wide cabin, the other has just enough room to lie down.

Voyager is expected to complete its flight Christmas Eve, returning to Edwards in the Mojave Desert 60 miles north of Los Angeles.

The five-year, $1 million program was undertaken by a group of private volunteers, in part to demonstrate the usefulness of a lightweight carbon- fiber composite used in Voyager’s construction. Officials say the material is lighter than aluminum but seven times stronger.

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