Although Jeana Yeager spent less time at the controls during Voyager’s round-the-world flight than did co-pilot Dick Rutan, she is by all accounts a superb flier and she held nine aviation speed and endurance records, four of them in Voyager, before Tuesday’s landing.
Yeager--no relation to that other famous test pilot, Chuck Yeager--graduated from high school and worked in Houston for a time as a mechanical draftsman. She grew up as the daughter of a public schoolteacher in a small town near Dallas.
Yeager came to California and was employed by Bob Truax, a retired Navy officer and engineer who has been trying to launch a private-sector manned spacecraft; at one point she was asked to think about flying aboard Truax’s planned craft.
By then, Yeager had begun flying lessons, getting her private pilot’s license in 1978.
She met Rutan at an air show in 1980 in Chino, where he was trying to sell planes built by his brother’s firm. “I just met him and liked him,” she told an interviewer in New Yorker magazine. “We’ve been together in Mojave just about ever since.”
The two are nearly as inseparable on the ground as they have been in the air for the past nine days. They live together.
“We’re compatible,” Rutan said of the strong-willed 34-year-old Texan who shared the cramped quarters of the Voyager on the record-breaking flight. “Jeana’s real tough, a good pilot,” he added.
Rutan and Yeager pooled their savings and became partners in his dream--flying around the world nonstop, without refueling. She worked side by side with him, helping him build the craft.
She has flown in all of the Voyager’s 65 test flights and set speed records in two other aircraft designed by Burt Rutan.
Despite her shyness, a lightheartedness in Yeager occasionally comes through, as in a promotional film they made before the flight:
“She’s better at cooking,” Rutan says at one point in the video, adding quickly: “She’s better at hanging with it. She’s a lot stronger than I am and can undergo stress better.” He then points out that the trip will be uncomfortable: “No morning shower,” he says.
Replies Yeager, smiling, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
Yeager, like Rutan, took the trip seriously. “It’s a part of history and a step forward into the future,” she said.
She trained long and hard for the flight. There was, for instance, a training flight in a small aircraft to Australia in order to get a better feel for flying long distances over water. “We passed through a cyclone, but it was no big deal,” she said. “I’ve seen more weather just flying from Mojave to Los Angeles.”
Yeager was one of the first civilians to go through the Air Force’s tough water survival training course. She also took cram courses for a commercial pilot’s license, a multi-engine rating and instrument rating.
A slight woman of about 100 pounds and 5-feet, 4-inches tall, Yeager cut her long dark hair to a boyish bob to keep it out of the way during the long flight--and to cut down on unnecessary weight.
Those who know her are convinced that Rutan didn’t just take her along for the ride.
His father, George Rutan, himself a pilot, tells a story of Yeager flying a small plane in a cross-country race a few years back, only to have the propeller break shortly after takeoff.
“She shut down that engine and landed dead-stick on a freeway. . . . She came up behind a Datsun with two girls in it, and they didn’t even know she was there until she bumped them a little.”
George Rutan calls Yeager “a real cool pilot” who “has more grit than most men. Tell her she can’t do something and she’ll quietly go ahead and do it.”