Dick Rutan, Vietnam War pilot and record-breaking aviator, dies at 85

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MEREDITH, N.H. — Burt Rutan was alarmed to see the plane he had designed was so loaded with fuel that the wing tips started dragging along the ground as it taxied down the runway. He grabbed the radio to warn the pilot, his older brother Dick Rutan. But Dick never heard the message.

Nine days and three minutes later, Dick, along with co-pilot Jeana Yeager, completed one of the greatest milestones in aviation history: the first round-the-world flight with no stops or refueling.

A decorated Vietnam War pilot, Dick Rutan 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 enduring a second night on oxygen after suffering a severe lung infection.

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

Burt Rutan said he had always loved designing airplanes and became fascinated with the idea of a craft that could go clear around the world. His brother was equally passionate about flying. The project took six years.

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

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

Voyager left from Edwards Air Force Base in California just after 8 a.m. on Dec. 14, 1986. Rutan said with all that fuel, the wings had only inches of clearance. Dick couldn’t see when they started dragging on the runway. But at the moment Burt called on the radio, co-pilot Yeager gave a speed report, drowning out the message.

“And then, the velvet arm really came in,” Burt Rutan said. “And he very slowly brought the stick back and the wings bent way up, some 30 feet at the wingtips, and it lifted off very smoothly.”

They arrived back to a hero’s welcome as thousands gathered to witness the landing. Both Rutan brothers and Yeager were each awarded a Presidential Citizens Medal by President Ronald Reagan, who described how a local official in Thailand at first “refused to believe some cockamamie story” about a plane flying around the world on a single tank of gas.

“We had the freedom to pursue a dream, and that’s important,” Dick Rutan said at the ceremony. “And we should never forget, and those that guard our freedoms, that we should hang on to them very tenaciously and be very careful about some do-gooder that thinks that our safety is more important than our freedom. Because freedom is awful difficult to obtain, and it’s even more difficult to regain it once it’s lost.”

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 would loiter over enemy antiaircraft positions for hours at a time. 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 eject twice from planes, once when his F-100 Super Sabre was hit by enemy fire over Vietnam, and a second time when he was stationed in England and the same type of plane had a mechanical failure. He retired from the Air Force with the rank of lieutenant colonel and went on to work as a test pilot.

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

Dick Rutan set another record in 2005 when he flew about 10 miles in a rocket-powered plane launched from the ground in Mojave, California. It was also the first time U.S. mail had been carried by such a plane.

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

“Bigger than life, in every sense of the word,” Morris said, listing off Rutan’s legacy in the Vietnam War, testing planes and on the Voyager flight. “Any one of those contributions would make a legend in aviation. All of them together, in one person, is just inconceivable.”

Whittle said Rutan had been courageous in his final hours at the hospital — sharp as a tack, calm and joking with them about what might come next after death.

“He’s the greatest pilot that’s 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.

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