ENEMY FIRE ripped into the belly of Dick Rutan's F-100 jet fighter. The spewing fuel trailing out of the aircraft burst into flames high above the North Vietnam jungle. Odds and numbers raced through Rutan's mind: 30 miles to the ocean, 500 knots airspeed, three, maybe four minutes. U.S. ships would be waiting. But would he make it? The choices weren't much: Eject and be captured by the vietcong or stay aboard and run the risk of being incinerated. Rutan kicked in the afterburner, and five tons of thrust hurtled him toward the South China Sea.

They called him "Killer" Rutan in those days. He couldn't wait to get to Vietnam, couldn't wait to volunteer for the Air Force's deadliest mission: Operation Misty, in which pilots flew low altitude reconnaissance over North Vietnam in the late '60s. Misty pilots usually flew 75 missions. Not Rutan: He flew 105, a record. He liked it so much that he hooked a tape recorder to his helmet's microphone so he could record the pilot's conversations during missions and send the tapes home to his parents.

"I was a dope addict," he says. "Addicted to a chemical that you produce yourself called adrenaline. It was an excellent drug high in Vietnam, and I needed that adrenaline hit desperately. I felt immortal. My cockpit was sacred."

Rutan's jet made it to the ocean that day. He ejected, was rescued and got blind drunk that night with the guys. The next day he quit Operation Misty.

SEVENTEEN YEARS LATER, Dick Rutan is standing in airport Hangar 77 in Mojave, Calif., working on the rear engine of a bizarre one-of-a- kind aircraft called Voyager.

He and his small crew have hand-built the plane to take on aviation's last great earthly challenge: a nonstop flight around the world on one tank of gas. Nobody has ever been able to fly around the world -- 25,000 miles -- without refueling. The distance record is 12,532 miles, and aviation experts consider Voyager's chances of completing its mission slim at best. Dick Rutan could not care less.

"I know this is going to work," he says. "Some way, we are going to do this."

The Voyager flight already is being compared to Charles Lindbergh's historic 331/2-hour trip from New York to Paris in May 1927. And there are similarities: "Lucky Lindy" depended as much on technology, creative aircraft design and worrying to death about details as he did on raw courage. The Lindbergh attention to detail -- he considered even the weight of maps he carried and chose not to take a parachute because it represented 20 pounds of fuel -- has been applied to Voyager by Dick Rutan's younger brother, Burt Rutan, an aeronautical engineer internationally known for his ingenious, and radical, aircraft designs.

Burt Rutan designed Voyager to be built with space-age materials unheard of only a few years ago. The design was extreme, futuristic, computer analyzed -- and untested. Here, too, weight was the ultimate enemy. Only the top front edges of Voyager's main wing have been painted, for example, to save ounces.

Lindbergh also sought the latest thinking in aircraft design when planning his record-breaking flight but ultimately it was his unblinking courage that enabled him to push his tiny plane, overweight with gasoline, into the air, barely topping telephone wires at runway's end. A similar courage will be demanded of Dick Rutan. As Voyager slowly gains takeoff speed in next year's scheduled attempt to fly around the world, its wing tips will be only inches off the runway, so heavy with gasoline they will droop nearly five feet. If Voyager gets into the air, it will take 12 days to circle the Earth at a fuel-conserving 80 miles an hour. During that time, Rutan and Jeana Yeager, his copilot and girlfriend, will live in an area the size of a refrigerator.

Unlike Lindbergh, whose flight was planned in relative obscurity, Rutan and his crew are becom- ing a media happening. Television crews and re-

porters have begun to make their way to

Mojave. A New York publicist has landed

a book advance for Dick Rutan and is marketing movie rights as as well as Voyager

T-shirts, belt buckles and posters. In wishful anticipation of success, the Mojave

Chamber of Commerce has posted a sign

at the edge of town that reads "Home of


Despite the hype, a successful flight

would be a true milestone in aviation history, so important that the Smithsonian

has already planned to hang Voyager in

the Air and Space Museum near Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.

Some of the attention that has been focused on Voyager has to do with Hangar

77's location: a few miles from Edwards

Air Force Base in the Mojave desert, where

the legendary Chuck Yeager (no relation

to Jeana Yeager) broke the sound barrier

and other pilots proved, often with their

lives, that they possessed, as Tom Wolfe

wrote, The Right Stuff.

VOYAGER was born four years ago on a paper napkin in the now-closed Mojave Inn. Over lunch, Burt sketched an aircraft -- very odd- looking. In that thing, Burt announced, Dick could fly around the world without refueling. Immediately a deal was struck: Burt would design Voyager, together they would oversee its construction, and then Dick would pilot it around the globe. Such consensus hadn't always come easily to the Rutan brothers.

For several years, they'd worked less congenially together at Burt's airplane design company, RAF Inc. "I would tell Burt that his designs wouldn't work," said Dick. "They couldn't possibly work, but he was always right." The brothers finally had decided that Dick would go his own way by flying and marketing a special aerobatics airplane designed by Burt. In fact, they'd gotten together that morning for coffee to discuss the plan. But the talk turned to world records and the concept for Voyager captured them. Once again, the Rutan brothers were uncongenial allies.

As boys, Burt and Dick had been so unlike each other that their father began studying genealogy in an effort to understand their differences. Dick was born wild: Motorcycles, souped-up cars, airplanes -- anything fast and dangerous. Burt, six years younger, shared Dick's love of airplanes, but instead of flying them, he liked to design them. He started at age 10 and by the time he was a teen-ager, the Westerner's Model Airplane Association had to rewrite its competition rules for judging the quality of model airplane landings. Burt's airplane was so cleverly designed that it could almost "hover" in midair like a helicopter and he easily won all of the club's contests for landing an airplane on an exact spot.

It went on like this for three decades, with Dick getting his pilot's license on his 16th birthday, joining the Air Force after high school, and waiting in line six years for pilot training. Burt stayed behind at the drawing board, graduating from California Polytechnic State University and eventually forming his own airplane design company. Today, he is a legend in the field. His designs -- which include an exotic swing-wing aircraft for NASA and a popular homebuilt plane, the VariEze (pronounced "very easy") -- are considered beyond revolutionary.

The brothers shared one important trait: both despised bureaucrats, rules and regulations. Dick, the hands-on adventurer, hated restrictions on his freedom to experience life at full throttle; Burt, the innovator, hated restrictions on his freedom to design.

THE PROBLEM with flying around the world on a single tank of gas is a Catch-22 of aerodynamics: An airplane would need so much fuel to make a global flight that only a large and powerful plane could carry it all; but a large and powerful plane would need even more fuel to make the trip.

Rutan set out to solve the problem by studying a 50-year-old mathematical equation developed by Frenchman Louis Breguet. The range of an airplane, Breguet found, could be determined by computing certain variables: a plane's thrust, efficiency, fuel consumption, lift and drag, and the ratio of its fuel weight to its gross weight. Rutan toyed with Breguet's formula at the computer for hours, seeking a perfect combination.

Part of his solution was to design an aircraft that in typical Rutan fashion turned traditional ideas upside- down. Most aircraft are somewhat stretched out from nose to tail and stubby from wingtip to wingtip, a design philosophy that tends to maximize speed; Voyager is stubby and short from nose to tail and remarkably long from wingtip to wingtip, a design philosophy that sacrifices speed but increases lift and efficiency. Voyager's main wing is 110.8 feet, nearly three feet longer than the wing of a Boeing 727 airliner, but Voyager is not much longer from nose to tail than a 727's first-class cabin.

"There's an old adage," Dick says. "It's easier to fly a barn door on its edge than fly it through the air flat on."

Rutan also added another wing to Voyager near its nose. The front wing and rear wing are tied to each other with bullet-shaped fuel tanks that give the flimsy aircraft more strength. The front wing, called a canard, also improves the airplane's aerodynamics. First used by the Wright brothers but perfected by Rutan, canards have become his trademark. Most airplanes will "stall" -- stop flying and start falling -- when flown so slowly that they lose the aerodynamic lift of their wings. Properly designed, canards virtually eliminate stalls.

Rutan then eliminated the need for a heavy engine, required to get a plane off the ground but unnecessary once it is aloft, by designing Voyager with two small engines, one pulling at the nose, another pushing behind the cockpit. Once airborne, the front engine is simply shut down to save fuel.

The front engine in Voyager's nose is a relatively conventional four-cylinder aircraft power plant, but its rear engine, unveiled at the Paris Air Show last June, like many of its other parts, is experimental. The smaller 110-horsepower rear engine is liquid-cooled and weighs only 221 pounds.

By using two engines, Burt also gave his brother and Yeager one of Voyager's few safety nets: the front engine can be restarted if the rear engine fails.

Rutan's innovative design would be impossible without recent breakthroughs in modern composite plastics. Aluminum wings would have been too heavy. Except for the engines, fasteners, cables and fittings, there is no metal in Voyager. It is made primarily out of two substances that look like thick black cloth and waxed cardboard: The cloth is a graphite fiber tape known as Magnamite. The waxed cardboard is actually a thick honeycomb of resin-impregnated paper called Nomex.

The Rutans built Voyager by first making wood and plastic molds of the airplane's wings, fuel tanks and fuselage. A layer of Magnamite was inserted in the molds, the Nomex was added and then a final layer of Magnamite was attached. After curing in custom-built ovens, the sandwiched materials became several times stronger than metal, yet remained light. The components were then glued together. The materials are so flexible that when Voyager is flying, its wings sometimes move four to five feet, like a bird flapping its wings. In turbulence, the wings have have moved six to nine feet. Dick Rutan estimates that they can move a total of 30 feet up and down before the airplane begins to come apart.

When finally finished, Voyager weighed in at a mere 939 pounds without engines, less than half the weight of a small automobile. Nevertheless, the plane should be able to carry nearly nine

times its weight -- nearly 9,000 pounds of fuel,

or 1,500 gallons -- in its 17 different gasoline

tanks. One of the most complicated tasks in

designing the airplane was determining when

the fuel in each tank should be used so that

Voyager's delicate weight and balance would

not be skewed.

Dick Rutan believes that Voyager can take

off on a normal, 7,000 foot runway based on

mathematical formulas. But he isn't sure. He

won't know whether Voyager will be able to

lift all of its fuel until he actually tries it. So the

Rutans have chosen nearby Edwards AFB and

its 15,000 foot runway so that if Voyager can't

take off, "We'll have enough room to stop."

Burt Rutan estimates Voyager will take

three minutes to gain enough speed for liftoff.

VOYAGER'S planned course around the

world is to fly westward, mostly over water to

avoid hostile countries and various altitude and

air speed restrictions.

A Voyager command post will be set up at

the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum to

track the flight. An Air Force friend and fellow

Misty pilot, Col. Lanny Lancaster, will relay

weather information to Rutan and Yeager and

track their progress via satellite.

It will be a dangerous and uncomfortable flight. Like the Spirit of St. Louis, a fully loaded takeoff will occur only once, and its success is far from certain. No one has ever tried such a heavy takeoff in such a light airplane.

In the air, with the front engine shut off, Voyager's 80 mph speed will mean 12 non-stop days of flying, often through latitudes famous for squalls and storms. A single thunderstorm could make plastic toothpicks out of the aircraft. Rutan and Yeager will alternate flying Voyager. While one is awake, the other must rest in a two-foot-wide cubbyhole adjacent to the cockpit.

"It's impossible for one pilot to make this trip alone," says Dick Rutan. "A person can stay awake 30 to 35 hours, but then you are just in too bad shape to be alert." Rutan has flown more than 30 hours at a stretch while setting world distance records in his brother's airplanes.

"I was so fatigued that I began having mild hallucinations . . . I heard wild music, organ music, and I saw this little elf and he kept telling me to relax because I was already dead and I should quit fighting sleep."

Resting will be difficult, says Dr. George Jutila, a Fortuna, Calif., general practitioner who is the team's volunteer medical adviser. No one ever has been confined to such a small place in an airplane for so long. "We just don't have any idea about the fatigue factor," says Jutila. "The Voyager constantly moves, it sways, and we don't know what affect that will have on a person over a 12- day period."

NASA did a number of experiments before launching Sky Lab to see how astronaunts react to confinement, but none was in cubicles as tiny as Voyager's, according to Dr. Jerry Homick, deputy chief of the medical science division at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Yeager, who never had suffered from airsickness, became ill during a 12-hour Voyager flight over the Rockies this summer, the only major trip the plane has made.

"We ran into some unbelievable turbulence," says Dick. "What was maddening was that we knew if we could just climb to 18,000 feet, it would have been smooth sailing." Voyager had to ride through the turbulence because it didn't have any bot- tled oxygen aboard for high- altitude flying. Since then, Rutan has added a six-day supply of oxygen. He hopes flying at a higher altitude, where there is less drag because the air is thinner, will offset the extra 60 pounds.

Even in good weather, Voyager's ride is awful. "The airplane just looks better than it flys," says Dick. "Its design criteria call for it to be able to take off, land, turn and level off. That's not really too much."

When Voyager hits turbulent air, "It's not a heavy jolting vibration, it's more like being in a sailboat, constant motion," says Yeager. "It's more seasickness than airsickness."

Rutan and Yeager plan several test flights during the next few months to practice sleeping onboard Voyager, fixing meals, and disposing of wastes. After that, they will take on a major aviation record for closed-course distance flying in a piston aircraft, flying back and forth off the California coast between San Diego and San Francisco. They do not plan to spend 12 days in Voyager as a practice before the global flight.

"I have no intention of spending another microsecond longer in that enviroment than I have too," Rutan said.

IT IT ALMOST dusk in Mojave. Inside Hangar 77, Dick Rutan waits for brother Burt, who has asked for a flying lesson. Burt has let his instrument rating lapse.

"Isn't that sad," says Dick, when his brother arrives in a twin-engine Beechcraft, the sort of sleek airplane flyboys can't afford but businessmen can get their corporations to buy for them. Burt recently signed a major contract with Beech Aircraft Corp. "He should be flying one of his own airplanes," says Dick. "Not wasting his time in that."

For nearly an hour, the brothers sit on a couch inside Dick's office while Dick plays teacher: "What would you do if . . . ?" Dick seems to be enjoying the role. Later they shoot instrument landings in the Beech. The next day, Burt presses money into Dick's hand for the lesson. Dick refuses, but Burt insists.

Few things have come easily to Dick Rutan, but over the years he has learned not to give up. "He wanted to solo and get his pilot's license on his 16th birthday," remembers his father, George. "But the instructor said he wasn't ready. Dick had his mother drive him to another airport where he found someone who let him solo. He had to have his license that day."

He wanted to become an Air Force pilot but had to wait six years. When he finally made it to Vietnam, his father says, he was "downright bloodthirsty." He was awarded a Silver Star, five Distinquished Flying Crosses, a Purple Heart and 16 other medals. But in the end, Vietman proved to be too much. "After I was shot down that last time, I knew I was there. I was losing control. I was physically addicted to adrenalin, and I had to stop."

Rutan wanted to command his own peacetime fighter squadron. But after several years of promotions and promises, he was passed over and given a desk job. He retired from the Air Force and moved to Mojave to work for Burt as a test pilot.

"All I've ever wanted to do is fly, and there are only two types of flying worth a damn: test pilots and combat," Dick says. "The rest is repetitive and boring and should be left to bus drivers."

Dick seemed finally to have found the perfect job: he spent most of his time flying his brother's designs to airshows, where he performed aerobatics. It was at one such show that he met Jeana Yeager, who had just learned how to fly and was fascinated by Rutan-designed airplanes. She soon moved to Mojave.

Before long, though, Dick Rutan's dream job hit some turbulence. Burt wanted his brother to attend fewer air shows and spend more time in his firm's shop, says George Rutan. In 1981, Dick quit. He and Yeager and Burt settled on the Voyager project.

Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager pooled their savings and began seeking a financial sponsor for the flight. They approached dozens of Fortune 500 companies, only to be rejected.

"I would tell them, 'Thank you,' and walk away," says Dick. "But deep down inside, I was thinking, 'Okay, you s.o.b., you turned me down now, but you are going to live to regret this because we are going to pull this off.'

After Dick Rutan spent two frustrating years trying to raise money, brother Burt agreed to finance the building of Voyager at Mojave because he thought it would be easier to attract a sponsor if the aircraft existed and could be proven air-worthy.

Nearly all the materials for Voyager, including the engines and instruments, were donated by aircraft manufacturers familiar with Burt Rutan's work. Although the airplane was unveiled June 2, 1984, it still lacks a spon

It's not clear why. Dick Rutan says no suitable sponsor has come forward, although at least two major sponsors have shown an interest in the project. Others, including George Rutan, contend that Dick has turned away offers because he was afraid the sponsors would take control.

Dick estimates he will need about $400,000 to get out of debt and finance Voyager's mission. He's paying bills for ultilities, hangar rental and two small staff salaries from contributions, souvenir sales and his book advance. Near his office door is a framed letter from a contributor who sent $2. "Don't laugh," he wrote on the outside of the envelope. "I don't get lunch today."

"Most of the people here look on money as a necessary tool, something you have to have, like a wrench to fix an engine," Dick says. "It's just a tool, not the means to an end."

He and Yeager have hired a New York publicist to help them raise funds and orchestrate Voyager's coming-out party. Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager will be hustled before national television and already are booked for dozens of sessions with reporters.

Yet the pilots are clearly uncomfortable in the limelight. They give the practiced clich,es heroes learn to use with the press.

Why are you trying to fly around the world?

Yeager: "If there is another mountain to climb, I want to see what is there."

Rutan: "The challenge is impossible to ignore. I like nothing better than a good race and competition."

Yeager seems always to stay cool and controlled in such circumstances, but Rutan occasionally breaks loose and ignores his script, taking on any subject that angers him:

*"The Air Force's train- ing program for pilots is ridiculous, super-ultra-conservative, with just silly safety restrictions. When landing, everyone has to make the same type of approach, turn when they get to this barn or some other sight, and land just so. What the hell would happen if someone moved that barn someday? No one would know what to do."

*"The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) bureaucracy is slow to catch up to things like composites. That's 'cause people in the FAA are aluminum people. They are comfortable with it, and composites are something new that they don't understand. So they ignore it and hope it will go away because that way no one has to make a decision and no one has to say, 'Hey, maybe this is really better.' That would be like saying everything they believed for years is a lie."

*"We have to pay some absurd price for insurance when we take off at Edwards. It's crazy and its all the lawyers' fault. The legal system in America is totally out of hand. These people don't produce anything, all they do is try to suck off a living from others' ideas and problems. No wonder people don't invent things today. If something goes wrong, they get sued."

*"Politicians are the worst. I personally believe that cigarettes are a deadly narcotic, as bad as heroin, but our government subsidizes smoking; 351 people die from causes directly related to smoking . . . can you imagine the uproar there would be in government if a (plane) with that many people on board crashed each day?"

Now Yeager steps in to warn him: "You are getting on your soapbox."

"I don't care, do you like smoking?"

"No, but some people do."

"Fine, if it's not in my face. When I'm trying to eat a meal and someone starts smoking, I used to get irritated. Then, I thought, 'Why should I be the one getting irritated? They're the one with the filthy habit.' So I go over and tell them that they are ruining my dinner. Same with reporters. If they come up to me smoking, I tell them that they have to put out that filthy thing if they want to talk to me."

Yeager shoots angry stares, but Rutan ignores them, and now the subject is God.

"Religion is man's way of dealing with something that he doesn't understand. Look at history. The sun went down. It got dark and cold and humans were in a world of hurt, so man started worshiping the sun so that it would come back up, and it did. Then science explained why the sun disappeared and there wasn't any need for a sun god anymore . . .

"Now science has explained everything but death . . . That's the blank page in the book. So man still needs God.

"You understand what I'm saying? God didn't create man, man created God. Man needs God because he is afraid of death, and when we figure out death, man won't need God anymore."

Later, Rutan wants to amend the remarks. Yeager has chastized him privately. "I really don't want to do anything to hurt this mission and some people might really get offended by what I said," he explains. "It'd be better if you'd leave that stuff out."

DICK RUTAN thunders down the Mojave runway in his VariEze. Back on the stick and it snaps into the air, sweeping across the desert only a few feet above the arthritic Joshua trees and tumbleweeds below. He circles a burned building. "They used that for Pancho's Fly In in the movie 'The Right Stuff,' "We used to come over and buzz 'em while they were filming." He chuckles. "It really made 'em mad."

Back on the stick again and the plane juts upward, high enough to see the great dry beds at Edwards where the Space Shuttle lands. He talks about test pilot Chuck Yeager possessing The Right Stuff, a mystical combination of undaunted courage and macho pride.

Earlier, when asked why he always wanted to fly, Rutan replied: "Have you ever read Maslow?" a reference to Abraham Maslow, the influential Brooklyn-born psychologist, who saw life as a series of successive stages. "Self-actualization," Rutan said, "that's the key."

Self-actualization was the highest level in Maslow's equation: achieving full potential, becoming a person whose actions are in harmony with his wants. Rutan is there now: 10,000 feet above the desert. There is no badgering bureaucracy, no 9-to-5 drudgery, no fear of offending anyone. There is not even a God controlling his destiny. He is alone -- a pilot in his sacred cockpit.

Stick forward, left rudder. The nose goes down, way down, and the right wing comes up. The altimeter unwinds dizzily. This is a very unorthodox approach to the end of the runway at Mojave, a pattern not published in any airman's manual. The aircraft is fast, Rutan is abrupt. The touchdown is perfect.

The rebel grins: "It worked didn't it? We landed."