The longest flight in the world

Did you know there are several world records that were set for flight?

There are multiple world records set for flight. Some of them were with pilots, some without, some being refuelled and some not. The latest record-breaking was Qantas Airways landing in Sydney. This record was achieved at 7.45 am Sunday October 20th, 2019 after its continuous journey from New York of 19 hours and 16 minutes in air. Feels like its alot right? How about 1558 hours and 19 minutes! It was 1958 when two Las Vegas pilots, Robert Timm and John Cook, set this record. Let me tell you their incredible yet funny record breaking flight.

Early years of aviation; way back when

Back in the 1900’s flight endurance was limited by how much fuel a plane could carry but this was all about to change with the initiation of mid-air aircraft refuelling which increased an aircraft’s endurance to an unbelievable 1558 hours and 19 minutes. In 1923, the US Army Air Service set the first refuelled endurance record by staying in the air for more than 37 hours. It had 9 refuelings that pumped 687 gallons of gas with 38 gallons of oil into its tanks. Of course this record was broken multiple times; close to a dozen actually. 1929 claimed to have the highest number of record breaks as it was reset 5 times!

2 decades later, in 1949, a solid endurance record was set by two former Navy pilots in an Aeronca Sedan for 46 days and 9 hours. This record was set in a successful attempt to convince the government to reopen the Yuma Army Airfield. This record stood solid for almost a decade until about 9 years later, in the year 1958, two more pilots decided to set a new endurance record. This was about 2 years after the debut of an incredible aircraft; the Cessna 172, which was getting quite popular. After some slight modifications to the Cessna 172, which they named ‘The Old Scotchman’ for their mission, they set a record of 50 days in flight.

However, another group was just starting their journey, ‘Hacienda’ was ready to break this record in the deserts of Las Vegas.

The initiative for the ‘Hacienda’ journey..

Doc Bailey, an entrepreneur, built his first ever family oriented hotel and casino the ‘Hacienda’ in Las Vegas in 1956. This 265 room hotel did not do well.

Hacienda was considered to be one of the ‘low rollers’ because of its undesirable location and it catered to locals and families.

Hacienda’ Hotel and casino Las Vegas

The 265 room ‘Hacienda’ Hotel and casino in Las Vegas

Doc tried many things to boost his business but was soon convinced to step forward and engage in something much more ambitious.

undesirable map location of Hacienda’ Hotel

All the popular casinos were over a mile north of Hacienda.

Robert Timm, a slot machine mechanic who’s been described as a bear of a man, approached Doc with an idea. Doc was known to listen to and consider all ideas no matter where they came from. He was easily convinced that the best way to boost Hacienda’s visibility was to publicize that they were going to attempt to break the manned flight endurance record. The driving force behind this was the fact that Timm was an experienced aviator and had great passion for flying. He suggested they should feature the name Hacienda Hotel on the side of the aircraft which would draw the attention of many.

Robert Timm slot mechanic

Robert Timm, the slot mechanic

Doc was inspired by Timm’s initial idea. He put together a fundraising activity in support of a Cancer Research Foundation to garner goodwill for the stunt without merely using the flight as a public display stunt for Hacienda. People could try to win a cash price of $10,000 by guessing how long the flight endurance would be after contributing a small amount to the cancer foundation. This wasn’t gambling; it was helping a noble cause.

With Doc’s money committed to the stunt, they now needed a co-pilot and an aircraft with Timm serving as the primary pilot.

Modifications to a Cessna 172 to make it endurance-ready…

Timm reached out to one of his friends, Iru Kuenzi, who was also a mechanic at Alamo Aviation in Las Vegas. “He told me about this project he was going to get involved in and wanted to know if I’d be interested in helping him. I told him ‘sure’.”

Timm and Kuenzi chose N9217B, a Cessna 172 with 1500 hours total time on the airframe. Although it already had a Narco Omnigator Mk II and a Mitchell autopilot, these two spent a year modifying it to be stunt-ready.

Cessna 172 longest flight endurance aircraft

Timm and Kuenzi bought N9217B - a Cessna 172

They installed a 95 gallon Sorenson belly tank on the plane to supplement the 47 gallons of fuel the wing tanks could carry. This was then fitted with an electric pump to transfer the fuel to the wing tanks.

They re-plumbed the oil lines so they could change the engine oil and oil filter without shutting down the engine. Then they removed everything from the interior except for the pilot’s seat. They put a small mattress in place of the co-pilot's seat so they could take turns resting. They also installed a small stainless steel sink in the rear to wash and shave during the flight.

The co-pilot’s side door was also removed and replaced with a folding, accordion style door. A small platform was designed that could be lowered out this door to provide more footing during refueling operations.

Then, the two mechanics decided to replace the aircraft’s current 450SNEW engine with a brand new one from Continental Motors. Timm had explained to them the plan and was delighted by the idea of receiving a ‘special engine’ for the purpose. Years later Kuenzi discovered how this ‘special engine’ was given to them as a mere sales strategy by Continental Motors.

Timm made one additional modification, over the objection of Kuenzi who did not approve, installing a primer-like system designed to squirt alcohol into the combustion chamber of each of the engine’s six cylinders. He believed that this design would reduce the build up of carbon from combustion.

The first flight ...

Everything was set and ready for flight. The aircraft and pilot were ready although there are no records who the first co-pilot was who accompanied Timm during the early attempts.

They took to the sky three times and each was cut short by mechanical problems. Timm mentioned in one of his diaries ‘the entire sky lit up’ on their third attempt later realizing he has witnessed one of the atomic bomb denotations in the Nevada testing area. The three flights never lasted longer than 17 days. Timm was frustrated by the vast amount of mechanical problems and also was not getting along with his co-pilot, eventually dismissing him.

During this time, ‘The Old Scotchman’, who had held the endurance record previously, showed back up and set a new record frustrating Timm even more. Now they needed more than 50 days in air to come in even with the ‘The Old Scotchman’ record!

Introducing John Wayne

It didn’t take long until Timm found the perfect co-pilot in John Wayne Cook. Cook was a steady 33 year old with hours of flying experience who was also working at Alamo Aviation. It turned out that Cook has also spent time working on N9217B and Cook replied with ‘Sure, I’ll try’ when Timm requested him for the 4th attempt in the sky.

John Wayne Cook was a lanky, single, 33 year old airplane mechanic with experience flying for the airlines

John Wayne Cook of Cessna  flight endurance record

Experienced airline pilot John Wayne Cook

During the time Timm was on the lookout for his co-pilot, Kuenzi removed their ‘special engine’ and reinstalled the old 450SNEW engine while also disabling Timm’s primer-like system without his knowledge and this decision turned out to be spot on!

The fourth and final attempt

With less publicity than Doc originally desired, Timm and Cook lifted to the skies from Las Vegas with special permission from the FAA to lift off at 350-400 pounds above the maximum takeoff weight. They were even chased by a car who painted white on the aircraft wheels so that the duo did not cheat by secretly landing the aircraft when nobody was watching.

Encouragement from Ford Thunderbird for flight endurance record

Encouragement from a speeding Ford Thunderbird

‘Hacienda’ flew close to Las Vegas for the first few days until they made sure it did not have any mechanical shortcomings this time. Then they flew South, spending most of their time flying over the deserts of Blythe, California and Yuma, Arizona which had flatter, lower altitude terrain.

How did they refuel Hacienda?

Their primary support vehicle was a Ford truck loaded with fuel tank, pump and other necessities, donated for the purpose of accomplishing the mission. Hacienda flew 20 feet above a highway the government closed temporarily for the purpose and refueled twice a day using a hose. One of the pilots stood on the platform and winched up a fuel line to pump fuel into the belly tank. This took about 3 minutes. So, doing the math... 64 days with two refuelings each makes for 128 refuelings in total!

Robert Timm and John Cook didn’t do air to air refueling or use a solar powered airplane. They matched the speed of the Cessna 172 with a Ford truck and pulled up a fuel line for about 3 minutes to fill the tank.

Refueling Cessna by truck

Re-fueling the airplane

It wasn’t easy. Weather got in the way sometimes and interrupted their schedule. They made plans on meeting in new locations and times. They even had to deal with a non-functioning fuel pump at one point and managed to haul up 5 gallon fuel cans using a rope!

Refueling the Cessna 172

Refueling the Cessna 172 airplane

Food, water, towels and other basic necessities were also sent during these transfers. What do you think they ate? Chinese? Certainly not. Doc has taken lead in instructing chefs from the hotel to prepare them food with the finest, fresh ingredients which were stuffed into thermos jugs to send up to the pilots.

Endurance routines of the pilots...

Yes, they had a schedule for everything. Each of them took turns flying for 4 hours each. When they were not flying they tried their best to sleep. They attended to little chores to keep the aircraft off the ground and washed or exercised when they weren’t sleeping.

According to Cook’s diary, their hygiene activities were particularly uncomfortable.

“We got a quart of bath water, a large towel, and soap every other day”.

On one occasion Timm was going through his daily hygiene routine so had undressed, lowered the platform and stepped out of the co-pilot’s door with his toothbrush when Cook realized they were too low and would not be able to clear a ridge that was just in front of them. Panic stricken, Cook screamed to Timm to pull up the platform. Later, Cook told about his experience seeing a bare naked Timm struggling to pulling up the platform.

You might even wonder how they used the bathroom. Well, you know the standard Cessna 172 does not come with a bathroom. It doesn’t even have enough room for it. So they created their own method in the form of a camping toilet and plastic bags, which were then disposed of in unpopulated areas of the desert.

Even though the first few weeks of the flight sailed smoothly, Cook starts writing about their hardships in flight later on. They were constrained with a lack of exercise, burdened with constant engine noise and had difficulty completing even routine daily chores. They lacked sleep. They even escaped a tragic end when Timm accidentally dozed off in the pilot's seat at about 2:55 am about halfway through their mission. They later disclosed to a reporter,

“It was 2:55 AM and he [Timm] was fighting sleeplessness. On auto pilot fell asleep 4000 FT over Blythe Airport found himself halfway to Yuma Ariz 4000 ft. Very lucky. We must sleep more in the day time”
Flying by the record

39 days were gone, Hacienda’s generator, heat, light and electric pump had all failed. They had blankets to combat the miserably cold weather. A wind generator was installed on a strut, but only provided very little output and was just enough to power up some Christmas lights. For the failed electric pump, they used a hand pump and we found Cook’s diary summing up the torture,

“Hard to stay awake in dark place – can’t use radio – can’t use electric fuel pump. Pump all gasoline by hand, using minimum lights… Don’t realize how necessary this power until all of a sudden – sitting in the dark – no lights in panel to fly by – flashlight burning out – can’t see to fix the trouble if you could fix at all.”

Progressing towards the 50 day record that was recently set by the two former Navy pilots at that time, Timm and Cook were determined to break the flight endurance record. They decided not to land once they finally broke the record; they kept on flying for as long as they could. They really wanted to ensure that they had set the record bar high enough.

Holding the record after great difficulties encountered along the way, the pilots finally made the decision to land on the 7th of February 1959. Making sure not to forget having the white paint on the wheels of the aircraft checked before they landed, their efforts had paid off. It is amazing to be able to tell you that they flew 150,000 miles which is about 6 complete circles around the earth. Their extra effort in extending the record was worthwhile because up to today the record is still theirs.

Flight endurance record set

On February 7th 1959, the two pilots set their record on the record books

Some final thoughts

Several years later, Steve, the son of Timm commented on how much skill and determination his dad and Cook needed to survive for 64 days 22 hours and 19 minutes in the air, let alone setting a record.

Many years after the fact, when reporters asked Timm if he would ever consider replicating the stunt he replied,

“Next time I feel in the mood to fly endurance, I’m going to lock myself in a garbage can with the vacuum cleaner running, and have Bob serve me T-bone steaks chopped up in a thermos bottle. That is, until my psychiatrist opens for business in the morning.”

This incredible Cessna 172 aircraft now hangs from the ceiling of McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas after it spent some time in the McCarren museum.

Hacienda in Airport