voyager.JPG (25155 bytes)





Manley C. Butler, Jr.

Butler Parachute Systems, Inc

Roanoke, Virginia 24017



By now, the readers of Sport Aviation know that the Voyager successfully flew around the world on a single tank of gas in December 1986. But most are unaware of the development of the systems that helped Voyager complete its journey. Because of the obvious mission constraints, each aircraft system (many of which are unique to the Voyager) was optimized for minimum weight and volume. This article presents the development of the personnel emergency equipment systems, each of which includes a parachute canopy, parachute harness, life raft, life vest, a radio and miscellaneous survival equipment. The combined weight for both systems is approximately 32 pounds, making these the lightest systems ever developed with equivalent capability.


Because of the relatively short duration of the initial test flights with Dick Rutan flying the airplane, the crew did not have to change positions in flight. During this phase, Dick used a conventional emergency back parachute and Jeana Yeager used a custom-made back parachute. However, even with this very small parachute, Jeana's movements around the cabin were significantly impeded. The extremely tight quarters in the cabin made it physically impossible for the crew to change places while wearing any type of conventional parachute, thus the development of mission-specific emergency equipment became necessary. Butler Parachute Systems became involved with the project in November 1985,through contact with Van Pray, of the California City Parachute Center, who had provided the parachutes used for the initial flight testing. At an early meeting, the basic requirements were reviewed: minimum weight and volume, personal flotation device (vest), life raft, provision for normal survival items like signal mirrors and smokes, etc.

After the initial discussions, I suggested the following:

  1. Custom-fit, step-in torso harness with no adjustment hardware, to be worn throughout the flight.
  2. Quick-attach chest pack with the parachute, life raft, flotation and survival gear integrated into the same package. This would allow the same emergency procedures for ditching or bailout and minimize clutter in the aircraft.
  3. Parachute canopies sized to the user to minimize weight and bulk and to provide approximately equal rate-of-descent for both crewmembers.
  4. Jeana's parachute system to be provided ASAP to facilitate flight test-ing.
  5. Dick's parachute system to be provided as soon as practical, although not as urgent as Jeana's.
  6. Investigate the use of the Mini-Boat life raft and lightweight flotation devices.

After this meeting, I was given complete freedom to design and build the equipment, subject to approval by Dick and Jeana. All parts of the emergency equipment went through several iterations before the configuration was finalized, but the ability to design and build mission- and user-specific equipment with frequent interaction with the users greatly reduced the total time needed to finalize the systems. Table 1 lists the individual components and weights of the final systems. The development of the systems is covered below.



Parachute Equipment




Canopy with links

5.804 lb.

4.033 lb.







Cross Connectors



Container(parachute & raft)*



Ripcord & pilot chute







Flotation Equipment      
Raft wo/cylinder



Raft cylinder (CO2)



Vest wo/cylinder



Vest cylinder



Raft Handle w/lanyard







Misc. Survival Equipment      
Satellite transponder



Emergency Locator Trans.



Strobe light



Mk13 day/night flare/smoke



Pen gun flare set



Signal Mirror



Survival knife/tool



Tekna flashlight



Survival booklet


. .03





Total Weight (lb.)




NOTE: Weight shown is for final system configuration with raft, parachute, vest and miscellaneous survival items. System used in July 1986 on the closed course record flight contained no flotation or other survival equipment. Total parachute system weight as used in July was approximately 15.0 lb. All items were weighed on a gram scale and converted to pounds. Small rounding errors may exist in figures shown here.


The use of easily available, FAA-approved parachute canopies was desirable in order to reduce the time required to produce a flight ready system. After reviewing the choices, I selected the Phantom 22- and 26-foot conical canopies for Jeana and Dick, respectively. Ron Edwards, President of National Parachute Industries, Flemington, New Jersey, donated the canopies. In mid-November, Dick and Jeana visited my parachute loft (then in Ridgecrest, CA) and were fitted for the custom harnesses. Because Jeana needed a flight-ready system as soon as possible, a canopy that we had on hand was used temporarily and a "quick and dirty" pack was delivered 10 days later. This pack (Photo 1) was a simple tube with an opening along one side, closed with Velcro.

Photo1.JPG (18372 bytes)     Photo2.JPG (32279 bytes)

The pack was opened with a small loop of webbing, which was attached to the base of a soft (i.e. no spring) pilot chute. After opening the pack, the user extends the hand outward (still holding the webbing handle) until the pilot chute inflates and extracts the canopy. Incidentally, this and all subsequent systems have been used as pillows by the resting crewmember. Quick ejector snaps were used to attach the risers to the V-rings on the harness and are the only means of releasing the canopy from the harness. This type of canopy release mechanism was used to minimize the weight; the snaps were later modified to permit easier activation upon water entry. All versions of the parachute have used quick ejectors as the riser release.

In April, the Phantom canopies were received and the parachute systems shown in Photo 2 were built. These were used on the closed course record flight in July; the total weight for these systems is approximately 15 pounds, but note that they do not incorporate the flotation or survival equipment listed in Table 1. Dick's container measures approximately 16 x 8 x 3"; Jeana's is 12 x 8 x 3". These containers are closed with plastic coated stainless steel cable running through nylon loops. The loops pass through the container and are used to help shape the pack and keep the canopy compressed. The ripcord, a red webbing handle on the front center of the pack, is used to open the pack and to extract the soft pilot chute from the pack and place it in the air-stream. This type of ripcord was used because it provides an easy release even with the long stroke needed to prevent accidental opening (due to handling) in the aircraft. It is also easy to construct and has no hard points or pins which could be damaged in handling. However, this type of release is not practical when the pack closure is also used to compress a spring-loaded pilot chute as in most parachute systems.

JY_pack.JPG (16049 bytes)

DR_pack.JPG (18110 bytes)

The systems shown in Photos 3, 4 and 5 are complete with flotation and survival gear. The parachute packs are similar to the previous versions although the ripcords are slightly different. The red handle on the upper right side of each system is the ripcord for the parachute and is again attached to the bottom of a soft pilot chute. The yellow handle on the lower left side is the raft release. The life vest is in a pouch on the back side of the pack. The pouch on the bottom of each pack is used to store miscellaneous survival equipment and provisions are made for tying all of the various articles onto the container system. The pack has a hold-down strap, or bellyband, on each side that is routed back through the harness webbing and snugged tight prior to bailout. The bellyband is the only permanent attachment of the pack to the user as the risers will lift free of the Velcro holding them to the pack tray after parachute opening. This arrangement is used to ensure that the parachute canopy can be easily and completely released upon water entry while still retaining the raft and survival equipment during the parachute opening.

Jeana's pack measures approximately 12" wide, 11" tall and 4" thick. Dick's pack measures 12" wide, 13" tall and 4" thick. These dimensions do not include the equipment pouch, which is 3" deep on Jeana's pack and 1.5"deep on Dick's. Because the packs are very close in size and weight, we needed some way to identify the packs by touch - the little plastic balls on the carrying handle of Dick's pack are used for this.


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Prior to the initial meeting in November, Dick had planned on using a single USAF one-man life raft for both crewmembers in order to save weight. While this may be a workable solution when ditching, it is hardly feasible for bailout over the open ocean. After learning about the Mini-Boat (Photo 5), Dick and Jeana agreed that using two rafts was a much better approach. The primary reasons that the Mini-Boat was selected for the Voyager were its lightweight, availability and small pack volume. It is approximately half the weight of the standard one-man life raft and is considerably easier to package. The raft release handle on the pack is attached to a lanyard, which leads to the firing lever on the gas cartridge; the raft itself is on a 20-foot lanyard that is attached to the pack. Under most conditions, the raft would not be released and inflated until water entry to prevent entanglement of the raft with the parachute. Quite a few personal floatation devices were considered for use, including the usual military items, all of which were judged to be too heavy. The first personal flotation device actually obtained for use was a small lifejacket manufactured by Irvin Industries Canada for parachute troops. Two of these units were donated by Irvin and used for several design iterations that were not completed; the Irvin units were never actually flown in the Voyager, although they certainly would have been suitable. The vest finally selected for use was manufactured and donated by Eastern Aero Marine of Miami. The Eastern Aero Marine model HC-2, a small dual chamber unit designed for helicopter passengers, was modified by separating the chambers and using one chamber for each crewmember. Although this will provide only half the normal flotation intended by the vest designers, both Dick and Jeana are relatively lightweight and would enter the water wearing only a flight suit and the parachute harness. As always, the deciding factor was the weight reduction obtained by giving up the excess flotation. The vest is stored in a pouch on the back side of the parachute pack. After the parachute canopy is open, the wearer would reach down, grab the vest handle, pull it up and over the head, and then inflate the vest. One minor problem with a high mounted vest such as this one (and most military types as well) is that the vest tends to interfere with access to the riser release mechanism, although the problem is minimized through proper training.


The survival equipment items listed in Table 1 were selected by Dick Rutan, Lee Heron, Mike Hance (an experienced over-water ferry pilot) and myself. All survival items are readily available with the exception of the satellite transponder. Photos 6 and 7 show the contents of the survival packs.

JY_contents.JPG (16414 bytes)    DR_contents.JPG (17033 bytes)



The emergency parachute/survival systems developed for the Voyager mission are the lightest and most compact ever built with equivalent function and capability. It is significant that these systems were built using commercially available (but carefully selected) components tailored specifically to the mission and the users. The only items designed and built from scratch were the harnesses and the pack assemblies which contain the parachute canopies, life rafts, life vests and miscellaneous other items. Even lighter overall system weights can be achieved by further optimization of the components for the intended use.

Photo 8 shows Jeana and Dick with their customized parachute and survival systems.

Jeanna&Dick.JPG (20387 bytes)

Butler Parachute Systems, Inc. is developing a commercial product similar to the Voyager parachutes and will be at Oshkosh this summer to display the entire product line of emergency parachute systems.


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