The Longest Ever Flight Was Over 64 Days In A Cessna 172

Often, when we think of long-endurance flights, our first thoughts jump to military operations. Big planes with highly-trained crew will fly for long periods, using air-to-air refuelling to stay aloft for extended periods.

However, many of the longest duration flights have been undertaken as entirely civilian operations. The longest of all happened to be undertaken by that most humble of aircraft, the Cessna 172. From December 1958 to February 1959, Bob Timm and John Cook set out to make history. The duo remained aloft for a full 64 days, 22 hours and 19 minutes, setting a record that stands to this day.

A Test of Endurance

One might expect that such an effort was undertaken to push the envelope or to strike new ground in the world of aerospace engineering. However, the real truth is that Bob Timm was a slot machine mechanic and former bomber pilot who worked at the Hacienda casino in Las Vegas. Proprietor Doc Bailey was always on the hunt for promotional ideas, and Timm pitched his boss that a record attempt in a plane bearing the casino’s branding would be a good way to go. Bailey agreed, and committed $100,000 to the effort. 

Modifications to prepare the aircraft for the stunt took the best part of a year. The pint-sized Cessna was fitted with a 95-gallon belly tank, paired with a electric pump that could transfer fuel to the main wing tanks as needed. Special plumbing was also added that would allow the engine oil and filters to be changed while the engine was still running.

The interior was stripped out, and the standard co-pilots door was also removed, replaced with a folding-style accordion door instead. A platform was also rigged up that could be extended out of the co-pilot’s side of the aircraft. This allowed the co-pilot some additional room to move during the crucial refuelling operations.

Keeping the Engine Turning

The Hacienda Cessna 172 refuelling during its record flight. Source: McCarran Airport

Refuelling was handled by lowering a hook via a winch down to a fuel truck that would trail the plane on a straight stretch of road, usually twice a day. The winch would then pull up a fuel hose from the truck, which would be used to fill the belly tank in around three minutes. The same system was used to regularly pull up food, oil and other supplies like towels and water for shaving and bathing. 

Initial attempts faced issues. The plane had been fitted with a brand-new engine from Continental Motors Corp., fitted with an alcohol injection system at Timm’s insistence, despite the protests of lead mechanic Irv Kuenzi. The aim was to reduce carbon build-up over the long duration flight, but the engine suffered burnt exhaust valves which curtailed the third attempt. After the first three flights, the plane had never stayed aloft longer than 17 days.

Other hurdles came up, too. Timm wasn’t getting along with his co-pilot, and pilots Jim Heth and Bill Burkhart had just set a record of their own. The duo had managed to fly their own Cessna 172 for a full 50 days, landing on September 21 1958. It was clear changes were needed.

For the next attempt, Kuenzi reinstalled the plane’s original engine, which had 450 hours on the clock. The alcohol injection system was quietly modified to harmlessly squirt the alcohol overboard instead of into the engine. The original co-pilot was dismissed, and 33-year-old John Wayne Cook, a pilot and airplane mechanic, was given the job instead. 

The plane took off once more on December 4, 1958, at 3:52 PM from McCarran Field, Las Vegas. Officials monitoring the record chased the plane down the runway in a convertible Ford Thunderbird, putting white paint on the tires as an indicator to ensure the plane didn’t make any secret landings during the attempt. 

Over the course of the near-65 day flight, the plane was refuelled by its truck over 128 times. This, and the job of flying the plane kept Timm and Cook plenty busy. What downtime was available was spent reading comics and making up simple games such as counting cars on the roads below to pass the time.

Living the Long-Haul Flight Lifestyle

Fresh meals were cooked for the duo by the chefs at the Hacienda, though the food had to be chopped up to fit in thermos containers to be passed up to the plane. Bathroom duties were handled with a folding camp toilet and plastic bags, which were then deposited over uninhabited areas of the desert. 

The long flight wasn’t all trouble-free, as one might expect. An incident on January 12, 1959 saw Timm caught out while bathing on the platform outside the co-pilots door. With Cook at the controls, the pilot realised the plane would not clear a ridge with the platform extended, and quickly yelled to Timm to pull it in. Reportedly, Timm wrestled with the platform naked with toothbrush still in mouth, managing to avoid the ridge in time. The scare pushed the duo to reschedule their bathing activities for times when they were flying over safer areas.

The long flying hours, high work load, and poor sleep began to wear on the crew over time. On January 9 around 2:55 AM, Timm fell asleep while flying over Blythe, California, a few minutes before the end of his 4-hour shift. Cook remained asleep, and Timm eventually woke up at 4 a.m, with the aircraft having flown itself for over an hour with the wing-levelling Mitchell autopilot keeping the plane in the air. Speaking to a reporter after the flight, Timm noted “I made a vow to myself that I would never tell John what had happened.”

Over time, equipment failures began to stack up. A generator failure meant that fuel transfers to the wing tanks had to be done using a hand pump. Other failures took out the autopilot, various lights, the tachometer, as well as the fuel gauge for the belly tank and the crucial winch. With the engine racking up over a thousand hours of continuous operation, carbon build-up was starting to reduce engine power, too, making it difficult to climb the plane with the fuel tanks brimmed.

Back to Earth

On February 7, 1959, the plane finally landed at McCarran Field. The pilots reportedly had to be helped out of the airplane, which looked somewhat the worse for wear after its extended adventure. The plucky Cessna that could had covered over 150,000 miles in the course of its journey.

The plane now hangs in McCarran International Airport. Note the sliding door on the co-pilot’s side, and the belly tank underneath. Source: McCarran Airport

Afterwards, Cook continued on as a pilot, while Timm resumed working on slot machines at the casino. As for the plane, it was shown off at the Hacienda for two years after the record flight. It then went to a new owner up in Canada for some years, before Timm’s son Steve located it and brought it back to Vegas in the late 1980s. The plane now hangs in the McCarran International Airport, above the baggage claim area for incoming passengers.

The flight serves as a great example of endurance of both machine and man. Running a small aircraft engine from the 1950s for 1500 continuous hours is remarkable. Similarly, Living in such a confined space with continual noise for over two months is one hell of a feat. It may be for that very reason that the record has not yet been beaten.

One could imagine, with the resources of the world’s militaries, that a much more comfortable record attempt could be made on a larger bomber or transport aircraft. With more crew and more room to move, the feat need not be so onerous. However, given a tiny 1950s Cessna was able to achieve such a great record, there is perhaps little to prove by going further!

59 thoughts on “The Longest Ever Flight Was Over 64 Days In A Cessna 172

    1. There is no reason to the government to risk lives with a stunt like this. Similarly, there is little reason to keep an unmanned drone in the air via mid-air refueling when it’s cheaper and easier to simply have two drones.

      1. OMG shut up.. If you’re not a true aviation lover – YOU’D NEVER UNDERSTAND…. Besides there’s not as much RISK as your putting on it… IT’S TRULY THE BEAUTIFUL CHALLENGE OF ATTEMPTING THE IMPOSSIBLE. IT’S PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES OF AVIATION AND GETTING YOUR NAME IN THE RECORD BOOKS FOREVER!

        1. Thanks JD. My father had the pleasure of owning this airplane from 1973-1976, after it had been exported to Canada (CDN registration CF-NIL) and of course well after the record had been set. Thank you for your enthusiastic support of cool aviation feats, such as this!

      2. IFF its a stunt, its public for the same reason things like the space race were – its a veiled military threat – look at how good our rockets and guidance packages are, just imagine how fast our bomber will be over head etc…

        But if its for operational reasons its believable such things could end up happening with almost nobody but the poor sods in the aircraft knowing it was done – your the tanker pilot you just rendezvous with the plane you are supposed to and dump fuel at them (food and water is more problematic, but then if there is the expectation of long haul from the outset you can carry lightweight energy dense survival ration type stuff and reverse osmosis pump)… I find it hard to believe there is any good operational reason to have done so though, 2nd aircraft and crew is surely more reliable…

      3. Oh so “risky” flying an airplane in circles. If something critical fails, they land.

        Go take an intro flight. See if you can understand why flying is a passion for so many.

        1. After 1500 hours of continuous vibration and stress, if something major were to fail, it’s entirely possible the redundancy that keeps it safe may have already also failed, sight unseen.

          Risk compounds over time. It’s engineered to be very unlikely, but it can never be made zero. And once you start the clock, it rarely goes down. (You might think it would go down as the crew gains experience, but complacency and exhaustion bring it right back up again.)

      1. I guess you could argue that Valeri Polyakov, who spent 437 days on the Mir space station, was of the ground longer, although obviously he didn’t need to control his vehicle or refuel during this time so its a fair bit easier.

        1. the b52 has a bucket under a seat which you crap into a garbage bag. it stinks up the whole cabin until the poste defecation dump is sealed in a bag (knotting a bag). it is behind the ewo/electronics warfare officer’s seat near the hatch to go downstairs.

        2. Just use a Zeppelin. They circumnavigated the globe in one in 1929 in 21 days.
          You don’t even need to move the Zeppelin to break this record, although it would feel a bit like cheating if you don’t.

  1. I am more impressed by psychological endurance than anything else. There is no way in h** that you could get me to be cooped up in an aircraft for days, never mind weeks or months. I hate being in a car driving for more than a few hours. These were some remarkable human beings.

    1. I hear you, I start fidgeting after 4 hours on a plane. Even when I’m driving and have something to do my limit is maybe four or five days – with rest stops. These guys were living in an unheated, bare-bones space the size of an SUV, next to a noisy engine and a big hole open to the airstream, for 2 months.

      Whatever they got paid, it was not worth it.

      1. I was an avid flight-simmer for a while, and finally got a couple of hours in the air a few years back. The physical endurance needed to fly these little planes is very real: It’s cold, small, loud, and vibrating – unceasingly so. I’ll bet things get a bit more civilized in a twin engine affair, but life in a single-engine 2 seater is a very physical experience.

        1. Yes, but *this particular* Cesna also looks to have a giant hole in the side of the cabin covered by a glorified shower curtain. I’m not a Cesna pilot but I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that some air redirected over the cylinder heads probably had a hard time keeping up with that.

          1. Pilot here. The air is actually redirected through a heat exchanger baffle wrapped around the exhaust, so it can actually get VERY hot air if you need. The exhaust gas temperature for the engine in a Cessna 172 is about 700C. Most piston GA aircraft have this generous hot air supply.

  2. The record hasn’t been beaten since because Guinness won’t recognize any further attempts at this to my understanding, though I can’t substantiate that specfiically. It’s one of those things considered dangerous enough that they don’t want to encourage people trying it more and more. Guinness may recognize it, but FAI won’t recognize new records for crewed airplane or glider flights. [see: Wikipedia Flight Endurance Record]

    But when I first heard of this, the in-flight hacks were neat. What’s not covered in this is my understanding that when the generator died, they added a prop onto a generator they hauled up and drove it off the wind / slipstream.

      1. I was wondering about the FAA’s opinion on the mods. No way there’s an STC for replacing the door with an aftermarket one. You can’t even remove the rear seats in a 172 unless you’re a licensed A&P mechanic.

        1. You can do almost anything you want after surrendering an airworthiness certificate moving the airplane into an experimental category. In the ’50’s Aviation was an exploding emerging market before the government sank their hooks regulating it into the shell it’s becoming.

    1. Martin: Just because nobody will officially recognize the record doesn’t mean people won’t try to beat it. When the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash was officially discontinued in the 1970’s, it didn’t stop people trying to beat the unofficial records. The latest fell just last year (now an astonishing 25 hours 39 minutes to cover 2816 miles). Granted, flying an airplane outside the law is a touch harder than driving a car at supra legal speeds.

      smellsofbikes: It was the 1950’s. The FAA wasn’t quite so anal back then. (Not that I mind them being anal at all.)

    1. That 95-gallons-in-3-minutes pump was on the truck, pushing the fuel up. They’d never be able to sustain a siphon pump for that task. The onboard pump that failed was a fuel transfer pump, which only had to lift fuel from their fuselage tanks up into the wing tanks.

  3. Much longer than a rotory wing endurance flight if I recall correctly?
    Does Anyone have info on helicopter endurance records ?
    I think it was once achieved in Anaheim , hovering above the Anahiem Stadium parking lot in a piston driven helicopter during a rotory wing convention. The Orange County Radio Helicopter Club matched the full scale endurance with a RC helicopter over the course of several days at Whittier Narrows park. It was part of their Fun Fly activities that year. I participated with a few minutes of stick time with other club members.

  4. Great story and great endurance flight!
    By the way this was the flight that beat the old world’s record here by family friends 10 years earlier in Yuma Arizona where two local guys flew an Aeronca non-stop for almost 47 days.

  5. “…Big planes with highly-trained crew…”

    Space Shuttle Columbia’s STS-80 mission ran 424 hours, and remains the longest of the Space Shuttle missions. It’s not really the same thing at all, but at least parts of that mission were conventional aerodynamic flight.

  6. A buddy and I flew from Austin TX to Oshkosh in a Cessna 150 with an overnight stop. I love flying but these guys were well worth their salt. Bravo! Only thing i can think of close was Yeager and Rutan around the world. Another amazing feat.

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