Dick Rutan, Who Flew Around the World Without Refueling, Dies at 85

Dick Rutan, who in 1986 commanded the first aircraft to make a nonstop flight around the world without refueling — an aviation milestone whose ingenuity and daring recalled the heroic do-it-yourself era of early flight — died on Friday in a hospital in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. He was 85.

His brother, Burt, who designed the ultralightweight plane that was flown in that nine-day voyage, said that Mr. Rutan had suffered from long Covid, which in recent weeks required 24-hour assisted breathing, and that he had decided to have his oxygen turned off after enduring a night of great pain.

“Before he made the decision to end it,” Burt Rutan said, “he was talkative.”

In the spirit of technology created by other California tinkerers, the design of the Rutan craft, the Voyager, was first sketched by Burt Rutan on a napkin at a Chinese restaurant in the desert town of Mojave in 1981.

The advent of a new material, composites of carbon fiber, made it possible for the first time to imagine an airplane light enough for a round-the-world flight on a single tank of gas, Burt Rutan told his brother and his brother’s companion at the time, Jeana Yeager.

Dick Rutan, left, with his brother in 1986. “Somebody said when Dick was born, he didn’t have a birth certificate — he had a flight plan,” Burt Rutan said. Credit…Mark Greenberg/Redux

The plane they built in a hangar in the desert was propeller-driven and resembled a child’s balsa wood glider, but with wings longer than those of a Boeing 727. It was essentially a collection of 17 fuel tanks in a sheath of carbon fiber cloth, epoxy and paper — a skin so fragile that it could be damaged by an elbow poke. Voyager was so heavy with fuel on takeoff that it took nearly three miles of runway to ascend from Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California on Dec. 14, 1986.

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