The Longest Flight In History - In a Cessna 172

By Barry Meek
Last summer on a contract job, I flew an average of about five hours a day. There were stretches lasting several days when I'd be aloft for over ten hours, landing just once for fuel. If the weather was bad, there would be a break, or a short flight of two or three hours. Most pilots do what they do because they love the work. But after a few days of nonstop ten-hour flights, it gets a bit grueling. The noise, heat, vibration, mental and physical fatigue can be really tough on the mind and body.
If you think that's difficult, imagine spending over two months in a Cessna 172, flying twenty four hours 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.
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.

 

John Cook, Bob Timm, actor Preston Foster & Hacienda owner Doc Bayley

John Cook, Bob Timm, Actor Preston Foster & Hacienda owner Doc Bayley

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 refueled 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. Re-fueling and re-supplying 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.

Refueling "Endurance" 172

Refueling "Endurance" 172

After three unsuccessful attempts at the record, mechanical problems and difficulties between Bob and his co-pilot needed to be dealt with. A new pilot, John Cook, agreed to fly the next flight with Bob. That attempt was ultimately the record breaker. The two fellows got along well, and the 172 seemed to sense the harmony. No more serious breakdowns occurred for the more than 1,550 hours of continuous flying.
On December 4, 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 tires 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.
Two months is a long time to be away from family, friends, and the comforts we take for granted on the ground. There was an autopilot installed, 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 half-way 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.

 

resupplying from the T-bird

Resupplying From the T-Bird

Boredom and fatigue were the biggest problems. One night, both men were asleep for a period of time lasting over two hours. The plane, on autopilot, had continued south until it was almost in Mexican airspace before Timm woke up and realized they were way off course . 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 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. Sixty four days and twenty two hours in the air.

PIlot Bob Timm

Pilot Bob Timm

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.
The entire story of this flight, and the record which stands to this day, is available to read at the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas.