How long is “really long” when it comes
to flights? A trip from Dubai to LA, or Sydney
to, let’s say, Houston? Or maybe the longest
flight in your life was that journey from
Kansas to New York when you were trapped between
a snoring guy and a crying baby? In fact,
the longest flight in the world lasted for
… wait for it … 64 days and 22 hours!
If you’ve ever been at the baggage claim
of Terminal One at McCarran Airport in Las
Vegas, you might’ve spotted a Cessna 172
airplane with “Hacienda” written all over
it. It’s not a marketing trick for a hotel
that’s trying to win over tourists (even
though it was back in the day) but a reminder
of a truly historical flight: the longest
one ever! It’s that very Cessna 172 that
took off in December, 1958 and didn’t land
until February of 1959! How did the pilots
manage to stay in the air for so long? Where
did they get the fuel from? What did they
eat, and did they ever sleep? I absolutely
understand your curiosity because it all sounds
… well, a bit unreal, and I’ll answer
all these questions in a few moments, but
first, let’s see why this whole flight happened
in the first place.
Back in the 1950’s, the future owners of
Hacienda decided to build a family hotel in
Las Vegas. Judy and Warren “Doc” Bailey picked
a spot on a dusty plot of land south of Vegas,
pretty far away from the famous Strip with
all its casinos, glamour and glitz. And, the
hotel wasn’t exactly a success. They needed
to find an original way to advertise themselves.
Getting a huge billboard? Paying some celebrity
to tell everyone how great Hacienda is? Apparently,
none of the options that came to mind in this
situation seemed good enough. And then suddenly
they knew what they had to do. A slot machine
mechanic named Bob Timm offered them a brilliant
idea! He decided to set the new flight endurance
record, and he needed a plane and money. The
Hacienda owners granted him $100,000, which
was enough to buy a plane and the necessary
supplies. In exchange for that money, Bob
had to paint “Hacienda” on the side of
the plane. To make it look less like a promo
trick, Bailey decided to turn the flight into
a fundraiser for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research
Foundation. People were told to guess how
long the plane would stay in the air, and
the closest guess was even offered a $10,000
The mechanic had actually made 3 attempts
to beat the endurance record, but he couldn’t
stay in the air for longer than 15 days. The
reasons were diverse: from mechanical problems
to a complete misunderstanding with his co-pilot.
You know, when you’re stuck with someone
in a tiny Cessna cabin for days, it’d better
be someone you like. Otherwise you might ask
him to step outside. So he took all of that
into account and started preparation for the
new flight. While Timm was still getting ready,
he found out that two Dallas pilots, Jim Heath
and Bill Burkhart, had just beaten the old
record from 1949 of a 46-day long flight by
4 days, so his new task was to stay in the
air for at least 51 days. And, Timm was hoping
to break that record with the help of a co-pilot
he found for the trip – John Cook, a flight
mechanic with over 100-flight-hours of experience.
They took off from McCarran Field in Las Vegas
in the afternoon of December 4, 1958. They
were flying in Las Vegas air space for the
first few days so that they could land at
the airport in case something went wrong.
Once they realized it would all be fine, they
moved towards the deserts of California and
Arizona. Timm and Cook were piloting the plane
in 4-hour-long shifts, and tried to sleep
in between. It all went smoothly till Christmas
and then New Year’s, but after a month of
isolation and almost zero physical activity
and sleep, it became clear they needed a good
rest. At around 4 a.m. on day 36 of the flight,
Cook was taking a rest and Timm was piloting
the aircraft when he dozed off. It happened
over a canyon in Arizona. Fortunately, the
autopilot saved them from disaster and it
was in charge for about an hour as the plane
was moving towards the Mexican border. On
day 39, the generator went out of service
and they lost heat, light and autopilot. But
they still didn’t plan on giving up! On
day 50, which was January 23, they broke the
record for the longest flight, but even then
they didn’t stop because they didn’t want
anyone else to beat the record any time soon.
On day 60, the engine started slowly dying,
and since they didn’t want to risk their
lives, the crew decided to land. They did
it on February 7, 1959 after 64 days, 22 hours,
and 19 minutes and 150,000 miles in the air.
Now let’s think this through. For the flight
to be possible, there were a few major issues
to think over: refueling, eating, sleeping
and bathing, and keeping busy and sane.
First, if you’ve ever traveled by anything
that runs on fuel, be it a plane, or even
your car, you know it won’t go anywhere
without refueling. To break the record, the
plane wasn’t supposed to land for at least
51 days, as you remember, so they had to come
up with some solution to keep it up. They
remodeled the aircraft and install a 95-gallon
belly tank on it. It extended the total fuel
capacity to 142 gallons. A tanker truck brought
extra fuel twice a day. The pilot had to fly
very very close to the ground and keep the
same speed as the truck on the road. And then
one of the pilots had to get outside the plane
on a little platform they hung out the window!
The platform was set up between the fuselage
and the wing strut. I know how crazy dangerous
it sounds, yet they did it 128 times during
the flight! So the pilot grabbed a hose from
the truck with a hook and a winch. They used
an electric pump to fuel up.
Second, two adult men obviously couldn’t
go without food for 64 days. The same supply
truck that brought them fuel delivered the
food in a special thermos. The Hacienda hotel
kitchen staff did their best to provide the
pilots with only the healthiest and freshest
food. They also received water, towels and
laundry thanks to the same supply truck. Whoever
wasn’t piloting the plane at the moment
dropped a basket on a rope and lifted it back
up into the cabin.
Theoretically, it’s possible to go without
showering or shaving for 64 days, but Timm
and Cook didn’t have to do that. A sink
was installed inside the plane for shaving,
and showering had to be done … outside,
using a quart bottle of water on a special
platform. Now that must have been quite a
show and a challenge!
Speaking of challenges, I know what your next
question is (hey, it would be my question
too: how did they manage to go to the bathroom?
Well, in one word: Carefully. I also would
assume they might use that basket and rope
food transfer system to return the um… you
know, digested by-products, to the ground
crew for proper disposal. Better that than
say, just lobbing it out the door. But hey,
I’m just guessing here. Just trying to give
you’re the straight poop.
They had also removed the co-pilot’s seat
and replaced the swinging fuselage door with
an accordion-fold door to make more room and
to make it easier to enter and exit the plane
in the air. They put a mattress in the freed
space, but both pilots barely had any sleep.
The engines were just loud day and night,
so it was basically impossible to fall asleep
inside the cabin.
Finally, the crew of two had to keep busy
so they wouldn’t go crazy in such a confined
space. They had comic books to glance through,
and they played games like “I spy with my
little eye” and counting things. They did
some limited kinds of physical exercise that
they could practice in their little home.
During the Holidays, Timm tied little parachutes
to candy canes and dropped them down for his
6-year-old son as they were above the airfield.
Fortunately, both Timm and Cook managed to
stay sane and on good terms with each other.
And, they didn’t lose their sense of humor.
When interviewed after the flight, Cook was
asked if he’d go on such a journey again.
He answered he would, as long as he’d be
locked “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.”
After they’d landed safely, Timm went back
to his slot machine mechanic job, and Cook
continued working as a pilot for airlines.
No one has managed to beat their record yet.
Alright let’s hear from you: Whom would
you take as co-pilot if you had to go on a
64-day-long flight? Let me know down in the
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