Tuesday, February 10, 1998

Editing can't erase her mark on history
Jason L. Ables

It was such a small item about balloonists, just a blurb buried inside the newspaper, yet it touched on such grand themes, including two of my favorites: adventure and big ovaries.

A crew of balloonists attempting to become the first ever to circumnavigate the globe was forced to land after China initially refused them passage through its airspace. China later relented, but by then it was too late for the three men aboard the Breitling Orbiter 2 to catch the jet-stream winds they needed to make it across the Pacific Ocean. Their hopes dashed, they touched down in Burma, Saturday.

But even if their around-the-world quest went unfulfilled, for now at least, their names do go into the record books. That is because, as the San Jose Mercury News explained, "They would surpassed (sic) the record for the longest (time duration) non-stop, un-refueled flight set in 1986 by Dick Rutan of California."

Now grammar aside, the thing that jumped out at me about that sentence was the omission of Jeanna Yeager's name.

Who?

Jeanna Yeager, she was Dick Rutan's co-pilot. He did not set a record, they set a record.

Hopefully your memories can be jogged back to 1986. In December of that year, a strange white plane called the Voyager took off from the California desert. It was so gawky, so loaded down with fuel that it broke part of its wing tip off at take-off. But once it became airborne, the Voyager radiated a grace of line and a majesty of purpose. Its pilots, Yeager and Rutan, were chasing the last great powered flight milestone left - an around-the-world flight on a single tank of gas. Nobody had ever done it. But nine days, three minutes and 44 seconds after they took off, Yeager and Rutan touched down. Their achievement put their names next to the Wright Brothers and the Charles Lindberg in the history books.

Chances are the newspaper's wire editor, needing to save some words and being on a hurried deadline, inadvertently omitted Yeager's name from the news brief. Whether the omission was an accident or an act of overt (or subliminal) sexism is a valid question, but not one I'll take up here. I'm just hoping the people at the Guinness Book of World Records got it right.

Playing off a popular male phrase for courage, Missy Giove, American mountain biker and world-cup champion, opined that one characteristic of a winner was having "big ovaries." Jeanna Yeager has big ovaries.

Speaking at De Anza College a few years ago, Yeager and Rutan were talking about their flight when the subject of Yeager's hair came up. Before their record attempt Yeager had a long, beautiful head of hair. Just before they took flight, she cut it all off. Rutan said that they had figured out that cutting her hair had gained the Voyager an extra four miles worth of fuel. The audience laughed at what seemed like such a trivial thing. Rutan came back at them with, "Have you ever swam four miles through shark infested waters?" Instantly, the point hit home.

You know, these around-the-world trips and balloon adventures, they do not come with guarantees. Yeager and Rutan did not know if they could make it or not. Sure the plans said they could, but in the real world things go awry.

Like the balloonists, Yeager and Rutan were denied access to air space, not by China, but by Libya, whose leader Muammar al-Qaddafi felt little need to grant Americans a chance to bask in accomplishment. Suddenly, the drama of international politics, is not a CNN minute but a reality. Yeager and Rutan handled the situation coolly, yet the re-routing of their flight around Libya cost them precious fuel. Later, when they had to avoid storms that were threatening to rip the fragile craft apart, they used up even more fuel. Very quickly the flight seemed in jeopardy.

But they pressed on, and as the coast of California once again came into view, they seemed so close to home that anything but success seemed unthinkable, and yet that is when disaster struck. One of the two fuel pumps on board the Voyager malfunctioned and stopped pumping. The plane ran out of gas. Unfortunately, the good pump was hooked up to what were now empty fuel tanks, a result of the last eight days of flying. Rutan quickly surmised that they needed to swap fuel pumps and frantically began working on it as Yeager piloted the plane. But once the pumps were switched the fuel still would not flow. The fuel was there. The pump was there. But something was wrong and unless they could figure it out they were going into the drink. Four miles through shark infested waters? Adventure? Without a doubt, it was definitely big ovary time.

It turned out the attitude of the plane was keeping the fuel away from the good pump. In other words the plane was tilted, like when you go down hill in you car and your fuel gauge says your tank is low. In a last ditch effort to set things right they aimed the Voyager down toward the ocean. With the new attitude, suddenly the fuel rushed through the lines and found the good pump. The plane was under power and flying again.

A few hours later Yeager and Rutan landed as heroes.

In my view the essence of humankind revolves around a few basic characteristics: our humanity, our capacity to learn and to adapt, and our intrinsic curiosity about the world, a sense of adventure. If we are anything, we are a race of beings that longs to see what is up around the bend. And from so-called primitive cultures doing the hawk dance, to the Russian MIR, we look to the sky longing to fly.

People like Jeanna Yeager remind me of that - whether or not her name gets in the newspaper.

-- Jason L. Ables is the Opinion Editor of the Golden Gater