VOYAGER

By Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan

With Phil Patton

Knopf. 337 pp. $19.95

HAS IT really been less than a year since the whole world traced the progress of Voyager around the globe, watching it inch across those maps on the evening news? We crossed our fingers as Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager squeezed north of cyclone Marge, skirted forbidden Vietnam and Cambodia, and threaded through appalling weather over Africa. We shuddered when we learned of the heart-stopping engine failure near Cabo San Lucas, when the airplane dropped from 8,000 feet to 3,500 feet before power was regained. And then we marvelled when they were safely home, having seized in spectacular fashion the last major aviation record left -- the "last first" -- a non-stop flight around the world without refuelling.

Voyager is the gripping account of this extraordinary accomplishment, from designer Burt Rutan's first Voyager sketches on a napkin, through the frustrating and fruitless search for funding; the decision by Dick and Jeana to build it anyway, with their own hands and those of volunteers; the slow accretion of support, a little from here, a little from there; the brushes with catastrophe as the radical design revealed its minor flaws and its major vicious streak; the testing and improvements and, finally, the flight itself. It was "the first time since before World War II {that} an absolute, unlimited category aviation record had been established -- not by an elaborately supported military effort, but by civilians."

Jeana Yeager, a commercial and engineering draftsman, got her pilot's license in 1978. While she was less experienced than Rutan, a veteran of 325 missions over Vietnam, she was no less dedicated; her contributions to the project from its very inception were as crucial to its success as her pilotage during their nine-day flight.

Dick Rutan had been in love with flying since childhood. He soloed on his 16th birthday, got his private pilot's license on his 17th -- the minimum age for each -- and continued from there. No wonder he developed a "velvet arm" -- a delicacy of sense and touch without which they would not have survived Voyager's test phase, never mind their trip around the world.

Somehow they kept their talented volunteers and a skeleton paid staff together for five grueling years. It was never easy; as Jeana used to say, "If it was easy, it would have been done a long time ago."

There are so many vivid scenes that stick in the mind for days. What sort of woman, for example, was Jeana? We knew she was tiny, weighed less than 100 pounds. On the inside, though, she's a giant. "One day on an outing to Mount McKinley National Park with Dave Daily, we stumbled right on a mother moose with two calves -- a mean and dangerous creature especially during . . . calving season.

"The moose charged -- a half ton of angry animal, seething with protective maternal instinct -- and Dave and I headed for the cover of a small tree, the only cover around, about six inches wide. But Jeana stopped and confronted the creature head on, in the middle of the trail, until it came right up to her nose -- and stopped."

Their perception of the cockpit, once the plane is built: "We realized that we had somehow left ourselves nothing to live in but a seven-and-a-half by two-by-two space -- a horizontal telephone booth. And with the engines going, that telephone booth felt as if it were being dragged down a cobbled road by a Mack truck with no muffler."

Phil Patton has done an outstanding job of cementing Rutan and Yeager's story into a cohesive and highly readable whole. High drama and raw emotion are laced through a narrative that's necessarily technical, but never hard to understand. Conflicts between strong personalities aren't whitewashed -- least of all those between Jeana and Dick, who had lived together before Voyager was conceived.

Humor is mostly of the ironic, low-key pilot's variety. "Somewhere in the rules for setting world aviation records, Burt had found an obscure provision that required the pilots 'to survive any record flight by forty-eight hours.' Any life expectancy in excess of forty-eight hours, he liked to joke, represented wasted range capability." Later, when Dick declined advice from the ground to change a fuel pump, the response came back: "I'm going to shoot you forty-nine hours after you land."

There are points of style to criticize: confusing shifts from third person to either of two first-person voices; double and triple repetition, at 20-page intervals, of statements already made. Closer editorial attention should have ironed out these wrinkles.

Still, Voyager is sure to take its place among the enduring classics of adventure literature. It will be enjoyed by the myriads of non-pilots who cheered Voyager's progress and the spirit of the Americans who made a dream come true.