In 1958, two men piloted a modified Cessna 172 for an amazing 64 days, 22 hours, and 18 minutes over the desert in the Southwestern United States. Their world endurance record in a propeller-driven airplane still stands today. Here’s how it all got started.
Pilots had been setting endurance records for years in the 1920s and 1930s. Flights were recorded in the number of hours flown and most were flights that did not refuel. The first flight that was refueled during the flight and surpassed the non-fueled record was achieved on August 27–28, 1923 by Captain Lowell Smith and First Lieutenant John Richter. They flew for 37 hours and 15 minutes in a De Havilland DH-4B.
A slew of other endurance record breaking successes followed in the late-1920s and early 1930s. By 1935, the record stood at 27 days, 5 hours, and 34 minutes. It was broken again in 1939 and twice in 1949. Now the time for being in the air without landing stood at a whooping 46 days and 20 hours. This feat was eclipsed nine years later in 1958 when two pilots named Jim Heth and Bill Burkhart in Dallas, Texas, flew for 1,200 hours and 16 minutes. That’s 50 days in the air. But their record would only stand for 123 days before it was broken yet again by pilots Bob Timm and John Cook.
Bob Timm had been working as a slot machine mechanic at the Hacienda Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, (which after its destruction in 1996 became the Mandalay Bay) when he suggested to the owner of the hotel, Warren “Doc” Bailey, that he should sponsor an airplane endurance flight. Bailey agreed and funded the flight. Timm planned to fly a Cessna 172 with the Hacienda Hotel name painted on the side of the aircraft. It was intended to be great publicity for the hotel, but to keep people from thinking it wasn’t just a cheap casino promotional trick, Bailey made the flight into a fundraiser for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. They even gave people the option of guessing the length of the flight for a fee to have the chance to win $10,000 if they were correct.
Timm acquired a Cessna 172 aircraft and began to make modifications for the endurance flight. He had a belly tank added, removed the interior, and replaced the co-pilot door with a platform that would be used during refueling. The airplane even had a small sink installed so the pilots could keep clean.
Timm was an experienced pilot and had flown during World War II. He was also a certified airplane mechanic. It took a year to get all the modifications in place and then testing began. The test flights didn’t get longer than 17 days because of mechanical problems, and Timm wasn’t getting along with his co-pilot of the flight. That’s when John Cook came along. Cook was a commercial pilot and an airplane mechanic and agreed to co-pilot the airplane with Timm for the endurance flight.
The pair took off from McCarran Field in Las Vegas on December 4, 1958 in the afternoon. They had received special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly over their maximum allowed takeoff weight as they were overweight by 350 to 400 pounds. As soon as they were off, officials painted white stripes on the tires while riding in a car underneath the aircraft as it flew so they could be sure the airplane didn’t touch down offsite and takeoff again during the flight.
The plane refueled twice a day along a portion of road in the California desert near Blythe. A fuel truck would race with the airplane, and by using the special platform on the airplane that had a winch, the fuel line from the truck would be brought up to the aircraft. The pilots would then refuel the plane. This was also how the men got supplies such as food and water. This procedure was repeated 128 times during the course of the endurance flight.
The pilots started to have equipment failure on many things in the aircraft as the time up in the air grew. The pure stress of the flight was also making things difficult as the two men were getting very little sleep and had very little physical activity they could do in the small, noisy airplane.
They went through Christmas and New Year’s Day and then finally, on January 23, 1959, the pilots broke the existing record by the pilots in Dallas. But Timm and Cook didn’t want to stop there. They wanted to cement their feat into the record books. They flew for another 15 days before finally landing on February 7, 1959, back at McCarran Field where they had started almost 65 days before.
Timm returned to work at the Hacienda Hotel, and Cook returned to flying for the airlines. The airplane was put on display at the hotel for around two years before it was sold to someone in Canada. Timm died in 1978, but before he passed, he asked his sons to find the airplane. Timm’s son, Steve, located the plane in Saskatchewan, Canada, and returned it to Las Vegas in 1988. In 1992, the plane became an exhibit at the McCarran Aviation Heritage Museum after it was restored. Now it hangs above the baggage claim area at McCarran Airport where the flight had its one and only takeoff and landing after 64 days of being in the air.
Sources: AOPA, Santa Clara County Airports, USA Today
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