Shattering the Myth : Voyager Couple Talk About Their Breakup

Times Staff Writer

The flight ended exactly one year ago. The obligatory biography has been written. The unique, delicate, spindly parallelogram of an airplane they flew nonstop around the world has been hoisted to the ceiling of the Smithsonian Institution, where it will be dedicated today and dangle forever in dead flight.

The end? Not quite. . . .

The full momentum of Voyager continues for pilots Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan, who are still circling the world, California-to-California, without running out of gas.

This week, they fly first class to London for a television show with David Frost. Then to Singapore and Thailand for conglomerate conferences. There have been advertisements for Rolex (instead of one gold timepiece for himself, Rutan changed his honorarium to five gold and stainless steel aviation watches so members of the Voyager support crew would have their reward) and commercials for MasterCard. There are book signings.

It has all amounted to about 1.9 personal appearances a day for an entire year. Faceless airports. Endless jet lag. Continuous applause.

"We thought that by this time, by the end of this year, we would have a slower schedule," said Yeager. "But it is starting to look like next year before we start planning for a future."

Individual futures, that is.

Says Rutan: "The Voyager project was six years of very difficult, very trying times on our emotions and our psyches. Many good things happened but there also were casualties . . . and our relationship was one of the casualties."

Through their own, early decision, there was little talk of the personal lives of Rutan, 49, and Yeager, 35. Rutan's response to public questions about their relationship described them as business partners, friends and traveling companions. The discussions always returned to the airplane, its mission and their incredible achievement of flying around the world on one tank of gas. In nine days. 26,678 miles.

Yet their book, "Voyager," published by Alfred Knopf last week--with author Phil Patton--touches on their attraction that began at a Chino air show in 1980. They fell in love. They lived together in Mojave while Voyager was suggested, designed, built and flown.

Now they will discuss--but lightly and often contradicting each other on certain points--the destruction of that love.

For the interview, Yeager has deserted her wardrobe of jump suits (one style in five colors) that she wears for the tour and book signings and is showing her private, elegant persona in an indigo suit with white lace blouse. Rutan, also abandoning his jump suit, is handsomely dressed in a suede sport coat, collar and tie.

They were and are, they agree, opposites. Once-married Rutan, a 20-year Air Force officer and decorated Vietnam veteran, remains the super-confident, outspoken, short-fused, gregarious, impulsive, cowboy fighter pilot. Once-married Yeager is much the gentler, a horsewoman, a sailor, a patient administrator, thinker and thoroughly shy public speaker.

She is stubborn. He is dogmatic. She was a night person. He was day. She needed privacy to work, to be alone, to ride her horse. He grew jealous of time spent away from him.

They grew apart and some months before the flight, said Yeager, she was ready to dump Rutan and the Voyager project.

Relationship Strained

Rutan blames the breakup on the years of pressure and frustrations of the Voyager project. The analogy, he suggests, would be driving a car to the station to catch a train. The car engine springs an oil leak and there are two choices: repair the car and miss the train or make the train and risk ruining the car.

"We saw our problems but there just wasn't time to fix them," he explained. "So you keep driving . . . and by the time we got there, the thing was hopelessly destroyed.

"Now, most people break up and go their separate ways. We broke up and stayed together. It was the commitment to the project that kept us together. We had a dream and there were a lot of people involved and to deny them was intolerable. We had to get that car to the station no matter what got destroyed in the process."

Yeager offered a minor correction: " We didn't have a dream, we shared a dream with a lot of other people and we had a responsibility to live up to their expectations, to go beyond ourselves, skipping the book on relationships and fulfilling the dream to achieve their goal."

How did they handle the closeness of flight preparations and then the long, often-fearful, always-exhausting odyssey, cramped together for nine days in a cockpit no larger than a telephone booth?

"The transition from lovers to friends is difficult," acknowledged Rutan. "But one thing about Jeana and I . . . when we're together, she'll get mad at me and I'd get mad at her, but we'd never get mad at each other at the same time."

They were able to retain balance throughout, he said, because they were professionals functioning as test pilots, as partners of singular purpose.

"We were really one pilot," added Yeager. "We became an extension of one another, complementing each other. He is strong in piloting. I'm a good pilot but a better administrator."

Commitment Prevailed

Rutan said he felt fear, anger and anxiety on the flight and knew it was diluting his judgment and their safety. "And Jeana would see that and be able to bring it (judgment) back," he added. "She'd settle me down and tell me just to fly the airplane."

So they carried through on their commitment. And they will continue to tour together as long as there is Voyager-related business and appearances.

For there are bills to pay, part of the $500,000 outstanding when Voyager landed--so they are charging $15,000 plus expenses for corporate presentations and $20,000 plus expenses for overseas appearances.

They also have obligations to the many companies and individuals who supported the flight with in-kind services and equipment--but they chose to fulfill those appearances, gratefully, for nothing.

Rutan doesn't like airport waits and hauling baggage but he's enjoying their tour. Once there was exasperation. But then he sat and thought about the ingratitude of biting public hands that have fed.

"So I'll be sad to see this end and I'm trying to savor every minute," he said. "I love talking and I love talking to people. Even though the questions are the same, the people are different and their enthusiasm and their energy for the project is incredible."

Yeager isn't delighted about living out of a suitcase and still finds it hard "to speak up or speak out" yet doesn't mind leaving the talking to Rutan. "I doesn't bother me," she said. "I know what I did. That action speaks louder than any words."

As long as there is Voyager business, said Rutan, the partners will meet it and "what we do with Voyager will be done together, Dick and Jeana. We build the airplane. We flew it once around the world. We will finish the commitment."

Separate Companies

Yet inevitably, there will be separate paths. An initial step has been taken--they have formed separate companies for future activities.

"That goal (Voyager record) is finished," said Rutan. "We've acquired that for ourselves, for aviation and for America. What to do next? We look around for another goal, another significant achievement.

"But I'll tell you one thing. I don't want to do another poverty program. We've earned the right not to do that. I've paid my dues and I don't want to have to beg for rent money again with holes in my Levi's."

So Rutan hopes to take the examples of Voyager, the lessons learned in areas of spanloadings (the distribution of weight across a lifting surface, such as the wing of Voyager), aerofoil sections (the elongated, teardrop cross section of a wing that produces lift) and wing tip vortices (airflow disturbances) and apply them to crop dusting, "looking for funding to finance an agricultural airplane for the needs, technology-wise, of that industry.

"They (crop dusters) are still using biplanes of tubes and fabric, World War II engines, and they're way overdue for help. About 12% of the world's food supplies are helped by aerial agriculture application . . . yet in an environment of toxic chemicals, you have planes made of fabric, the worst materials for that environment."

He also would like to see a national return to airplane racing of the '30s but, instead of competition among aging and refurbished military fighters, there should be full development of airplanes strictly for racing, machines built from the featherweight, non-metal materials (glass or carbon fiber composites) used by Voyager. Under such a system of professional competition, Rutan added, aviation may improve its product bloodlines as the automotive industry has benefited from the Indianapolis-car circuit and Formula One auto racing in Europe.

"That's why general aviation is on its butt right now," he said, "because nobody has developed its state of the art. Nobody is proving and improving its technology . . . we have it (development through competition) in automobiles, but in airplanes it's a joke."

Since the December, 1986, touchdown of Voyager at Edwards Air Force Base, an event televised live worldwide and an aviation accomplishment clearly ranking with the flights of the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Chuck (not even a distant relation) Yeager, the couple has enjoyed only one vacation.

Rutan went quail hunting. Yeager took helicopter lessons.

Therein, she says, lies one of her future career choices.

"I've always wanted to fly helicopters, I want to get my helicopter rating and I will . . . then find ways to make it viable, to get paid for doing it."

She has another goal. Yeager says she will follow her love of horses and start harness racing.

"That's Jeana," noted Rutan. "People, horses and helicopters."

Yeager made another correction. "Helicopters and horses," she said. "Period."

In their book, in any interview, Rutan is clear on one point. He regrets losing Yeager. He describes his affection for her as the highest he has felt for any person.

He talks, in the book, of the end of the Voyager flight and wrapping his arm around Yeager. "It made a nice picture," he said, "but at the same time I felt a twinge of emptiness and loneliness.

"The moment of my greatest triumph was mixed with my greatest disappointment: In the end, I did not really have the person with whom I would most have wanted to share the moment."

Without Voyager, they were asked finally, would their relationship have survived?

"Yes," said Rutan.

"No," said Yeager.

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