Q: Why are you guys doing this?
A: People seem to be motivated when they're doing something that hasn't been done before. It's a lot more interesting than bolting fenders on cars. I don't mind working hard as long as I don't have to do the same thing over and over again. I'll do the dirtiest, rottenest job, sweep the floors, do the hard work of building an airplane, as long as I only have to do it once.
Q: You and Jeana and the four people who worked for your brother's company, all literally built this plane. How many hours a day did you work on it?
A: Oh, I don't know. It was one of those things that you work until you can't work anymore. You start making mistakes. Then you go home and you go to sleep, and when you wake up you come back and go to work again.
Q: And you've done that for almost two years now?
Q: How did the Voyager project get started?
A: My brother Burt is a very innovative, creative designer. But his ability to produce airplanes is a lot slower than a lot of airplanes that run around in his head. I was kind of itching to get out on my own and start our own corporation, take one of his airplanes that's in his head and produce it. Every so often, he would mention this fly-around-the- world-nonstop-non-refuel. I didn't take it too seriously. He said, "We'll take six months, handful of dollars, it's kind of an easy thing."
Q: That was in what year?
A: 1981. He came up with a prelimiary design for the airplane, and Jeana Yeager, my partner, and I would build or manage the program for him.
Q: What is the difference between flying a plane like the Voyager and flying the fighter jets?
A: It couldn't be more different from a high-performance, responsive jet fighter to a very gangly low- powered, almost-no-response Voyager aircraft. The Voyager aircraft is designed for range only. It's "mission adequate." It can take off, and turn adequately to fly around the world. Obviously, you don't do a lot of turning.
Q: So this plane is only for this one mission.
A: One mission. It's not good for anything else.
Q: Is it fun to fly?
A: No. I don't look forward to flying the airplane. The jet fighters or the sport planes are very responsive. They have a lot of power. Roll the wings up and dive through a canyon and rat race and do aerobatics. Very lively and responsive and quick. That is fun flying.
But this airplane flies so slow. It's very difficult to fly. It takes a long time to turn it. Very difficult to land. It has to land at exactly the right attitude. If you land it faster, you hit the nose wheel and it bounces you in the air again. If you land slower, you hit the tail booms.
Q: Obviously you are in love with flying
A: Oh yeah. There is a poem, "I have slipped the surly bonds of flight and danced the skies on laughtered silvered wings . . . ." It's a sense of freedom. Sometimes you get all balled up with problems and the world's pressing in on you. That's when you get up on your airplane and fly up to 5 or 6 thousand feet and look down at your problem from below and you can see so far and it's so clean and beautiful and you think that, "Why in the world am I letting that little tiny dot problem down there feel like it's the weight of the world on your shoulders?" It's very therapeutic. You can get a fresh look at everything. It's a three-dimensional freedom that a lot of people don't experience.
Q: How young did you start flying?
A: My brother and I were interested in airplanes, for as long as we can remember. My mother says that they were born with jet fuel in our veins. When we were very little it was a little airplane you drove around the floor. Then we'd get bigger and we'd make 'em fly. My brother was designing model radio- controlled airplanes way back. He set some distance records, even in model airplanes.
When we were 15 we started taking flying lessons. We both soloed at 16. In fact I went out and soloed on my 16th birthday -- still too young to get a driver's license! I was a flight instructor at 17 and then a commercial pilot and then went in the Air Force and did pilot training and flew all the operational jet fighters they had at that time. Had a real good career.
Q: Didn't you have 325 missions flying over Vietnam?
A: We were involved in high- speed fighter reconnaissance strikes. We spent a lot of time searching for lucrative targets. The war up there was very fluid. They would take things out and move them and hide it. You kinda had to be there and find them and hold them down while you called in the fighter-bombers. We flew mainly by ourselves with a high-speed fighter airplane at very little altitude. Those missions were very long and required tanker support. We were kinda proud of the fact that we spent a lot more more over North Vietnam than even the fighters did. They'd drop their bombs and leave, spend only 15 minutes over North Vietnam. We'd be up there all day spending four to six hours at a time.
Q:How many guys were up there at that time?
A: We were very small. We started off in a kind of experimental thing with about two missions a day and built up to six or eight missions a day. It was a very small organization, highly motivated. Strictly volunteer. It is a fairly high-risk, too, a real adrenaline-type factor.
Q: Do you miss the drama of that?
A: No. Vietnam was a real debacle. That notwithstanding, I was a military person and I did what I was told. The atmosphere of real combat is quite an experience. It's not something I want to do again, but I thought maybe to prove something to myself, I ought to at least try it once to see what would happen.
Q: What's the difference of the challenge of an endeavor such as that and the challenge you are now facing with the Voyager.
A: It's obviously a more moral goal. It's a challenge of the elements.
Q: Is this the last aviation record to be set?
A: We call it the last plum to be picked in aviation records. Something that hasn't been done -- like breaking the sound barrier. Lindbergh set a record nobody can break ever. Chuck Yaeger went up and broke the sound barrier. Nobody can take that away from him. This is a similar type thing. Nobody's ever flown around the world non-stop unrefuelled.
Q: What's the greatest danger?
A: Weather and mechanical failure, probably. The biggest challenge is trying to operate as a crew in a small area for 12 days under conditions of noise and confinement. We did design the airplane (so) that there is one crew duty position. The on-duty crew member has a seat and they fly the airplane, do all the management of the engines, communication, navigation. But the other area is not a cockpit or a seat, it's a bin. One will fly and one will sleep.
Q: What are the biggest physical stress factors?
A: It's a noisy environment. There's a certain amount of anxiety about being that far out over the ocean and being surrounded by that much fuel held together with that light a structure. Mechanical failure, communications failures. My biggest fear is the weather. Flying that airplane into some thunderstorm or being in an area where there is turbulence or heavy rain.
There's high-sea survival equipment. We'll be fairly close to the tropics most of the time, so we won't have to prepare for ocean stay times in a very cold environment. We will be tracked by satellite so that they'll know exactly where we are. If we go down we don't have to wait weeks while they search thousands of square miles of ocean.
Q: You're going to be very cramped in that space.
A: You can't sit up, stand up or walk around. You're actually laying prone all the time, or sitting in the cockpit. You have to use isometric exercises. We have a flight surgeon who'll make a very lightweight contingency medical kit for headache, nausea, diarrhea, skin problems because of laying on your skin instead of on your feet and lack of ability to take a bath.
Q: What time of the year are you planning to make this trip?
A: The weather people tell me the best time to go is in the winter because of the South Africa crossing. From California, if you draw a line around the world, you go around South Africa, the Indian Ocean and Australia. And that's neat. It keeps us over the ocean where we don't have all this bad weather. And it keeps us out of the politics. (Over) the ocean, you have the freedom to deviate thousands of miles left and right off course and nobody's going to say anything. But if you're flying over Syria and Egypt and India and China, boy they want you right on a certain route, a certain altitude. You have no flexibility. Besides having some yo-yo shoot you down because he didn't know what you were.
Q: Jeana is also going to fly with you, isn't she?
A: Yes. It's a two-person airplane.
Q: What was the reason for choosing a woman?
A: Gena's a hot-shot little pilot. Holder of a lot of records. Weight is very critical.
Q: How much does she weigh?
A: A few pounds under a 100. Another thing, she doesn't eat very much compared to what I would eat. We found her water consumption, her fuel consumption, are very low. We flew an evaluation at 27,000. She took less than half the oxygen that I took. There again, is a really tremendous savings. Almost every nook and cranny of the airplane is fuel.
Q: How are you going about trying to raise money for this project?
A: Did you ever hear the story of the little red hen? Nobody wanted to help her pick the grain or make the bread but everybody's around wanting to eat it. We built it ourselves without anybody's help -- other than the manufacturer that gave us some of the materials.
Support, sponsors, volunteers, contributions. A lot of Burt's employees worked for him all day and they'd crawl over here at night and work til midnight for us, just to get the thing done because they were excited about the project.
We started this VIP club. Voyager's Impressive People. We'll take any contributions. I have people come up and hand me $10. For $100 or more, we'll put their name in the logbook. We'll carry it around the world, enshrine it in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. We'll have a VIP party and we're going to have a special launch area. They'll have a button and a card and a plaque on the wall that they can show people.
Boeing through the Air Force built a long range bomber supposed to fly a long ways. The best they could come up with was 12,000 miles. The salary that they pay all their engineering staff alone for one day would do this whole project. Us sneaky little guys down here in the desert with a little innovation and hard work -- we went and used some of their material and fabricated an airplane that will fly twice the distance that theirs will. We think! I'll be able to brag a lot more about it after we've done it.
But the airplane flies, and it meets its performance estimates. It wasn't done by NASA or some other government-funded thing, it was done with the American spirit. There are people who have donated spark plugs and little valves and radios and headsets that that we couldn't afford to go out and buy. Just to say that they had a part of it. And that's what we're really proud of.
Q: Can you see yourself doing anything else than this the rest of your life?
A: Oh, no. I don't know that there's anything else to do. It's the only thing I know. It's the only thing I know how to talk about. Sometimes you find yourself in a group of people that have absolutely nothing to do with aviation and you have a hard time holding a conversation with them. Around Mojave there isn't a whole lot of people and the only people that I see are aviation people. That's all there is to do here at Mojave. There's not a lot of distractions.
Q: Do you like living out here?
A: Mojave's an excellent place for what we do. We're not rich people. Our buildings are modest and we tend to scrounge a lot. We have the whole desert, we don't bother about falling on anybody. We can take off, raise the landing gear and not climb another inch and fly for miles and never hit a power line or a pole or a mountain or a house or anything. You can do a lot of creative things here.
Q: So you're going to be wedded to the Voyager for a long time?
A: As long as nobody has flown around the world before us, we will continue to try no matter how long it takes. I gotta try, I've told too many people I'm going to do it. So the only way I can get out of it is go off some place and change my identity completely.