Pilot Dick Rutan, First to Fly Around Earth Without Refueling, Dies at 85

Famed pilot Richard “Dick” Rutan has died. Rutan earned distinction during a 19-year military career involving Vietnam War missions that sought to increase bombing accuracy. He later achieved fame as one of the first two pilots to circumnavigate the globe without refueling. Rutan died at a Couer d’Alene, Idaho hospital on May 3. He was 85.

Rutan set his circumnavigation record in 1986 alongside co-pilot Jeana Yeager (no relation to Chuck Yeager). Their aircraft was the Rutan Model 76 Voyager, a lightweight craft that could carry more than four times its weight in fuel. Rutan’s brother, Burt, designed and built the craft over a six-year span.

plane in the air

The weird-looking but super-efficient Model 76 Voyager. Photo: Wikipedia


Rutan and Yeager began from California’s Edwards Air Force Base on Dec. 14, 1986. The two took turns as pilots throughout the nine-day flight. But Rutan reportedly flew the Voyager for the first three days straight because the cramped cockpit made it so difficult to swap seats.

Setbacks and significant hazards hampered every phase of the ambitious mission. The airman later said he was “sure he would die” on the record-breaking flight, according to Legacy.com. The two pilots landed back at Edwards on Dec. 23 with just 18 gallons of fuel left.

It was far from the first time Rutan had faced danger. His military flight career lasted from 1959-1978 when he retired as a lieutenant colonel. He was a founding member of Operation Commando Sabre, which marked a turning point in U.S. air tactics in the Vietnam War. Missions, where pilots flew F-100 Super Sabres low and fast behind enemy lines with the goal of precision strikes, were notably dangerous. Rutan had to eject once, but earned considerable decorations for his service: a Silver Star, 16 Air Medals, five Distinguished Flying Crosses, and a Purple Heart.

A family representative informed the Washington Post that Rutan died of pulmonary fibrosis — a complication of long COVID. Rutan reportedly died when he chose not to spend a second night on supplemental oxygen after contracting a lung infection. Loved ones and family members, including his brother Burt, were by his side.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents’ evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.