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Voyager Cruises Over Africa With Few Problems; Hearing Fears Abated

JOHN ANTCZAKDecember 19, 1986

MOJAVE, Calif. (AP) _ Past the halfway mark of its record-breaking odyssey to circle the Earth without refueling, Voyager cruised over Africa today with plenty of fuel to get the historic plane home to California, spokesmen said.

Meanwhile, the doctor who had said pilots Dick Rutan, 48, and Jeana Yeager, 34, risked a hearing loss because of malfunctioning equipment said today he had apparently overestimated the extent of the problem.

Meteorologist Len Snellman said the plane was aided by a 14 mph tailwind as of 9 a.m. PST with only one large band of bad weather between Voyager and the Atlantic. It was about seven hours from the coast of Cameroon, he estimated.

Concerns that the plane might run out of fuel before it could return to Edwards were allayed when a check of fuel logs revealed a 700-pound discrepancy in Voyager’s favor, spokesman Gary Gunnell said earlier today.

Ferg Fay, a retired Rockwell International space shuttle engineer who has worked as a volunteer for 1 1/2 years on Voyager, said the weather over the Atlantic looked perfect.

″The Atlantic’s a dang jewel,″ said Fay. ″I feel we’ve got them home when we get them (to the Cameroon coast).″

However, he said Snellman told him: ″If I don’t get 25-knot tailwinds over the Atlantic, I’ll have to talk to Mother Nature.″

Dr. George Jutila, the pilots’ flight surgeon, said today he had misunderstood flight controllers when he reported earlier that an electronic device intended to shield them from cabin noise had failed. In fact, he said, it only had to be switched off from time to time when the crew was communcating.

He had earlier indicted that the the pilots would likely experience hearing loss for some time after landing and that the loss ″could well be permanent.″

Early today, the fragile-looking but sturdy Voyager flew through mountain- induced air turbulence and a line of thunderstorms with no problems, said mission spokesman Larry Cansler.

Once the craft is over the Atlantic Ocean, strong tailwinds are expected that will push Voyager to maximum fuel efficiency, he said. ″That’s our ace in the hole at this point.″

Peter Riva, another Voyager spokesman, said the pilots were in good spirits and neither has reported any medical problems.

The exact number of miles Voyager has traveled since its takeoff Sunday morning from Edwards Air Force Base in California was not given by Cansler. By 7:30 p.m. PST Thursday, the craft had flown 13,694 miles, farther than any airplane had ever gone without refueling, the mission headquarters said.

The experimental plane surpassed the 12,532-mile record for straight-line flight without refueling Thursday, and project officials were hopeful Voyager would complete its 25,000-mile flight to become the first aircraft to circle the globe without topping its tank.

The speed at which Voyager stalls is determined largely by its weight, which is affected by the amount of fuel, said Burt Rutan, designer of the plane and Dick Rutan’s brother.

On Thursday, Voyager passed 60 degrees east longitude in the Indian Ocean, the midpoint in its 24,950-mile journey that began Sunday at Edwards Air Force Base.

Besides breaking the record of 12,532 miles for unrefueled straight-line flight set by a U.S. Air Force B-52 in 1962, Voyager on Wednesday surpassed the 11,235-mile distance record in straight-line flight for a piston-driven plane set 40 years ago by a Lockheed P2V-1.

At project headquarters in Mojave, the crew’s parents, other relatives and dozens of volunteers have kept busy monitoring the flight, talking to reporters and spectators and selling souvenirs in a makeshift gift shop.

The family members wait for news from ″mission control″ and concede they sometimes worry.

″Jeana and Dick were always confident,″ said George Rutan, 70, a retired dentist and the pilot’s father. ″I wasn’t sure. It (Voyager) looked pretty flimsy. What I want for Christmas is the two of them to get back safe.″

Voyager consists of a 109-foot-long wing containing fuel tanks and stretched beneath the bellies of three slender fuselages, with a smaller wing across the top of the three hulls in front.

It has two propeller engines, one in front and one in back. The outer two fuselages are 29.4-foot-long fuel tanks. The skin of the plane is a lightweight carbon-fiber honeycomb fabric.

The wing started out at about 111 feet long, but at least a foot was shaved off each wingtip on takeoff when the fuel-heavy wings dragged along the 15,000-foot-long runway at Edwards.

When the fuel tanks are full, Voyager weighs 11,326 pounds. When empty, the plane weighs 1,858 pounds and can glide more than 50 miles from an altitude of 10,000 feet.

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