Dick Rutan, who set an aviation milestone when he flew non-stop around the world, has died at the age of 85

MEREDIT, NH – MEREDITH, N.H. (AP) – Burt Rutan was alarmed when he saw the plane he designed was so full of fuel that its wingtips began dragging on the ground as it taxied down the runway. He picked up the radio to warn the pilot, his older brother Dick Rutan. But Dick never heard the message.

Nine days and three minutes later, Dick, together with co-pilot Jeana Yeager, completed one of the greatest milestones in aviation history: the first flight around the world without stops or refueling.

Dick Rutan, a decorated Vietnam War pilot, died Friday evening at a hospital in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, with Burt and other loved ones by his side. He was 85. His friend Bill Whittle said he died on his own terms when he decided against a second night on oxygen after contracting a serious lung infection.

“He played an airplane like someone plays a grand piano,” Burt Rutan said of his brother, who was often said to have a velvet arm because of his smooth flying style.

Burt Rutan said he had always loved designing airplanes and became fascinated by the idea of ​​a craft that could go around the world. His brother was just as passionate about flying. The project lasted six years.

There was plenty to worry Burt about while testing the Voyager light graphite plane. There were mechanical failures, any of which would have been disastrous over a distant ocean. When the plane was fully loaded, it could not handle turbulence. And then there was the question of how the pilots managed such a long flight with so little sleep. But Burt said his brother had an optimism about him that made them all believe.

“Dick never doubted that my design would actually make it with some gas left in the tank,” said Burt Rutan.

Voyager took off from Edwards Air Force Base, California, just after 8 a.m. on December 14, 1986. Rutan said the wings had only a few inches of clearance with all that fuel. Dick couldn’t see it as they started dragging down the runway. But as Burt called over the radio, co-pilot Yeager gave a speed report, drowning out the message.

“And that’s when the velvet arm really came in,” Burt Rutan said. “And he brought the stick back very slowly and the wings bent all the way up, about 30 feet at the wing tips, and it came up very smoothly.”

They returned to a hero’s welcome as thousands gathered to witness the landing. Both the Rutan brothers and Yeager received a Presidential Citizenship Medal from President Ronald Reagan, who described how a local official in Thailand initially “refused to believe some bullshit story” about a plane flying around the world on one tank of gasoline.

“We had the freedom to pursue a dream, and that’s important,” Dick Rutan said at the ceremony. “And we must never forget, and those who guard our freedoms, that we must hold on to that very tenaciously and be very careful of any benefactor who thinks that our security is more important than our freedom. Because freedom is incredibly hard to come by, and it’s even harder to get it back once you’ve lost it.”

Richard Glenn Rutan was born in Loma Linda, California. He joined the U.S. Air Force as a teenager and flew more than 300 combat missions during the Vietnam War.

He was part of an elite group that loitered for hours over enemy anti-aircraft positions. The missions had the call sign ‘Misty’ and Dick was known as ‘Misty Four-Zero’. Among the many awards Dick received were the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.

He survived having to jump out of planes twice: once when his F-100 Super Saber was hit by enemy fire over Vietnam, and a second time when he was stationed in England and the same type of plane suffered a mechanical failure. He retired from the Air Force with the rank of lieutenant colonel and went to work as a test pilot.

Burt Rutan said his brother was always having adventures, like the time he was stranded at the North Pole for a few days when the Russian biplane he was in landed and then sank through the ice.

Dick Rutan set a new record in 2005 when he flew about 10 miles in a rocket-powered aircraft launched from the ground in Mojave, California. It was also the first time that American mail was transported by such an aircraft.

Greg Morris, the president of Scaled Composites, a company founded by Burt Rutan, said he first met Dick when he was about 7 years old and has always found him generous and hospitable over the years.

“Larger than life, in every sense of the word,” Morris said, listing Rutan’s legacy in the Vietnam War, aircraft testing and on the Voyager flight. “Each of these contributions would become a legend in aviation. All that together, in one person, is simply unthinkable.”

Whittle said Rutan had been brave in her last hours in hospital: sharp as a tack, calm and joking with them about what might happen after death.

“He’s the best pilot who ever lived,” Whittle said.

Dick Rutan is survived by his wife of 25 years Kris Rutan; daughters Holly Hogan and Jill Hoffman; and grandchildren Jack, Sean, Noelle and Haley.