Friday, June 27, 2008

The Planes of Mojave: Special EZes, Part I - World Traveler

This article is the first in an on-going series that will highlight the stories of some of the more unusual aircraft that call Mojave home.

Sitting quietly and innocuously off to the side of the Long-EZ pack at the Rutan Birthday Bash was N26MS, the antithesis of flashy "been there, done that". But it most certainly has been there and done that...since its owner and builder is none other than the first U.S. Commercial Astronaut, Mike Melvill.

Perhaps the most remarkable feat accomplished by this small "homebuilt" is the one documented in a brief block of text adorning one of the EZ's external fuel tanks: the "EAA Friendship World Tour", an eastbound trip around the world undertaken by Melvill and Dick Rutan, each flying their own Long-EZ. Dubbed "around the world in 80 nights", the trip lasted from April 4 through June 24, 1997, logged 232 hours in the air, covered a distance of 33,685 nm, visited 14 countries and crossed all the world's oceans.

The project started out simply enough as a flight by Melvill and his wife back to his country of birth, South Africa, to visit old friends and family. When Melvill's wife decided she'd rather not cross the Atlantic in the back seat of a Long-EZ, Mike approached his good friend Dick Rutan. Rutan agreed to the trip on one condition: once they got to South Africa, they'd keep going the rest of the way around the globe. Unlike Rutan's Voyager flight, this global trip would begin and end in good ol' Mojave.

The pair left pair left Mojave on April 4th and stopped off at the Sun 'n' Fun airshow in Florida before heading south, island hopping through the Carribean and on down the east coast of South America. While crossing the 185 nm-wide mouth of the Amazon River, they also crossed the Equator. Melvill later wrote in an article in Sport Aviation, "I couldn't cross the equator for the first time in my own plane upright, could I? Rolling inverted as we crossed the equator was irresistible." The Atlantic was crossed on a stormy night in a 14.8-hour flight from Recife direct to Abidjan, Ivory Coast. After landing, they discovered that Rutan's Long-EZ had blown it main oil seal and lost 2/3 of its oil. And amazingly, the little FBO in Abidjan had a new seal in stock!

On another 14-hour leg, from Abidjan to Windhoek, Namibia, the tired pair flew all night only to be told by ATC when they arrived over the city that the main airport wouldn't open for another two hours, and that a stiff $900 fine would be incurred if they attempted a Melvill and Rutan entered a holding pattern at 11,000 feet until, tired and grumpy, they finally were allowed to touch down. The longest leg, from Reunion Island to the small Cocos Island atoll, took 17 hours (if you've ever sat in a Long-EZ cockpit, you will appreciate this feat!). According to Melvill, the final leg of the trip, a measly 1.4 hour hop from Calexico to Mojave "seemed interminable although we were flying as fast as the planes would fly. Eventually we flew over the Scaled building on the Mojave airport and entered downwind for runway 26. We were astonished to find a crowd of friends and family waving American flags to welcome us home."

Rutan later commented in an interview for The Space Review, "Although the EZ world flight wasn’t based on super-long-range endurance, we had plenty of time over the middle of oceans in the dark of night wondering when we’d see dry land again. The good part is the goals of the Friendship Tour were realized. We made a lot of wonderful friends, saw some beautiful countrysides in lands far away, and experienced some incredible receptions along the way."

The return to Mojave didn't end N26MS's association with around-the-world adventures. In 2004, as Scaled flight tested the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, in which record-setter Steve Fossett would later set a solo around-the-world non-stop flight record, Mike and his Long-EZ would occasionally be called upon to fly chase.

Perhaps the saddest flight that N26MS ever took place in, though, occurred ten years later, on July 31, 2007, when the world traveler took part in a memorial flight in memory of the three Scaled Composites employees who were killed in an explosion during a SpaceShipTwo systems test. As Mike flew left wing behind the company's Beech Duchess, fellow Long-EZ pilot Doug Shane pulled away in the classic "missing man" salute.

For more information:
-Mike's detailed account of the round-the-world flight
-Dick Rutan's page on the flight, including a link where logs of the flight can be purchased
-The Space Review's interview with Dick Rutan

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