By Barry Meek
LAST summer on a contract job, I flew an average of about 5h a day. There were stretches lasting several days when I’d be aloft for over 10h, landing just once for fuel.
If you think that’s difficult, imagine spending over two months in a Cessna 172, flying 24h a day, without even landing for fuel. That’s exactly what two pilots did back in 1958 in the California and Nevada desert. Bob Timm and John Cook set a world endurance record, remaining airborne for just under 65 days. It was a publicity flight, sponsored by the Hacienda Hotel in Las Vegas.
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Timm worked at the Hacienda, and he had the passion for flying, along with a dream of setting a world record by staying airborne for longer than any other pilot in history. He convinced his boss to sponsor the flight, reasoning it would bring a lot of publicity to the hotel.
A stock Cessna 172 was purchased, then modified for the flight. Although the Continental engine was basically untouched, two oil systems, filters, and a 95-gallon fuel tank were installed. The oil could be changed and the plane refuelled without shutting down the engine.
Except for the pilot seat, the interior was gutted, then re-done to include a mattress and a sink. The right side door was collapsible, providing access to the exterior and enabling the co-pilot to operate a winch for bringing supplies aboard from below.
Refuelling and resupplying the airplane were the tricky parts. Twice daily, the plane was flown just above a speeding truck from which a hose was hoisted up to pump 95 gallons of avgas into the belly tank. Food, water and other supplies were lifted up from the truck as well.
On 4 December 1958, the pair departed McCarran Airport in Las Vegas in pursuit of their dream. Immediately after takeoff, they flew low over a speeding car while someone with a giant paint roller applied a special white paint to the tyres of the plane. It would provide proof that the pilots didn’t land at night in some far off airport for a rest or repairs.
There was an autopilot, but Bob and John needed to take turns flying and sleeping. Four hour shifts seemed to work well. They had a radio to talk to the mechanics at their base, a radio to speak with their families at home, and a monitor was set up in the Hacienda lobby as part of the publicity campaign.
The two fell into a routine that worked well, and by the halfway mark of the flight, it was Christmas. The hotel kitchen staff was charged with the meals, and on December 25, John hoisted a turkey dinner up from the fuel truck.
Boredom and fatigue were the biggest problems. One night, both men were asleep for over 2h. The plane, on autopilot, continued south until it was almost in Mexican airspace before Timm woke up.
On about day 40, their heater failed. Even in the desert, winter nights can be cold. The men wrapped themselves in blankets for a few days, until something could be rigged and lifted up to fix the problem.
As the end of the flight neared, Bob and John began to check each other’s work, fearing a human error would cause them to fail in their quest for a world endurance record. Each procedure, every item, every decision was carefully planned and discussed.
The previous record was 50 days. As that day passed, they decided to extend their flight as long as possible, finally touching down over two weeks later. By then, the engine had started to carbon up and had lost so much power that climbing out with full fuel was dangerous . The list of ‘snags’ included the generator, heater, tachometer, fuel gauge, winch and electric fuel pump.
It was a tremendous achievement for both man and machine – 64 days and 22h in the air.
Bob Timm died unexpectedly in 1978; John Cook passed away in 1995. The Cessna 172 was sold to a Canadian pilot, but was eventually brought back to Nevada, where it now hangs from the ceiling at McCarran International Airport.