The Voyager designers must have been thinking ahead -- their lovely plane fits into the National Air and Space Museum with about two feet to spare.
At that, it had to be skewed slightly. The wings span 108 feet. While it was being installed in the south entrance hall yesterday, its left wing cleared the wall by five feet, its right wing by about an inch.
Last Dec. 14 Voyager took off on its historic 25,000-mile nonstop flight around the world. Yesterday just after midnight the fuselage left the museum's Suitland depot on a somewhat slower trip through Washington streets. The wings, tail boom and engines had been delivered the day before.
Everything went fine until the thing got inside the building. It took two hours to squeeze, by inches, past a jutting aircraft carrier exhibit. From there Rich Horrigan and his crew babied it into position, reassembled it and finally lifted it to the ceiling.
The whole job took them 32 hours.
The museum wanted Voyager in place for the day after Thanksgiving, its most crowded day of the year. Already a kiosk containing a five-minute video of its construction and flight stands beside it.
9:45 a.m.: The delicate craft, its wheels (later to be retracted) poised on three Mite-E-Lift hoists, needs to be jacked up so the second tail boom, a kind of rudder, can be bolted on.
"Okay, let's go up," Horrigan says quietly. The three scissor hoists rise smoothly. The plane clears an escalator banister, leaving room for the boom to be attached.
"Keep goin'," he says. Then waves his hand. "That's good." Everything stops and the men huddle. They discuss every move, every step, every gingerly extension of the cherry picker. Sometimes they consult the blueprints lying on the wing. Surely never in its life has Voyager moved with such deliberation.
Pilot Dick Rutan called it a dangerous plane to fly and told the Smithsonian he was glad to get rid of it. The elegant thin white wings flap three to five feet in normal flight, curving up at the ends like hawk wings.
The plane is so sensitive to turbulence -- shimmying and juddering and bucking like a mustang -- that the autopilot had to be on all through the nine-day global trip because no human pilot could make the constant adjustments fast enough.
Originally, the wings measured 110 feet including two winglets that raised the ends enough to keep the fuel vents open. Once in flight, says the museum's Rick Leyes, the wing tips naturally curved up and the winglets were jettisoned.
10:14: The plane is completely put together now, and the crew, back from a quick break, runs it steadily up on its hoists to within a foot of the ceiling. There it rests until cables are attached at three key points. The public is pouring into the museum now, joining the haggard few who have been up all night with Voyager.
The sophisticated plastic shell weighs only 939 pounds. With the two engines and various innards it comes to 2,050 pounds. Figure 7,011 pounds of fuel, 303 pounds for the crew and 130 pounds of provisions, and you get a flying weight of 9,494 pounds.
From inside the cabin -- there is no door; the pilots wriggled down through the skylight bubble -- the wings seem to stretch halfway to infinity.
"They're so flexible," remarks engineering consultant William A. Fleming, "that if you let them go three oscillations, they'll break right off."
A sweet plane, except when it's flying.
1:32 p.m.: Voyager hangs in place at last, one wing tip banked to within nine feet of the carpet. Even here, it looks a little bit wild.