The world’s longest flight was more than two months long

In late August, a solar-powered drone called the Zephyr nearly broke one of aviation’s wildest records.

The drone, operated by the US military and produced by Airbus, flew for 64 days, 18 hours and 26 minutes before crashing unexpectedly in Arizona – just four hours before it broke the record for the longest continuous flight ever.

This record was set 64 years ago, in 1959, by Robert Tim and John Cook, who flew on a four-seater plane in the skies over Las Vegas for 64 days, 22 hours and 19 minutes.

Remarkably, the Zephyr—a light aircraft with state-of-the-art technology that was flying autonomously—not only failed to beat that time, but even if it did, Timm and Cook would have held the world endurance record for manned flight.

Indeed, it is not surprising that Tim and Cook managed to stay in the air for so long, at an age that was closer to the Wright brothers’ first flight than today.

Fuel problem

In 1956, the Hacienda Hotel and Casino opened at the south end of the Las Vegas Strip.

It was one of the first family resorts in Las Vegas, and in search of publicity, the hotelier took a suggestion from one of his employees: pilot a plane with the hotel’s name on the side, and use it to beat the flight endurance record it stood on. It is approximately 47 days in the air and is set in 1949.

The employee, a former World War II fighter pilot turned slot machine repairman named Robert Timm, received $100,000 to hold the event, which was then tied to a fundraiser for cancer research.

Tim spent months adjusting his aircraft of choice, a Cessna 172: “It was a relatively new design,” says Janet Bednarek, an aviation historian and professor at the University of Dayton. “It’s a spacious four-seat plane and it’s been known to be reliable and fairly easy to fly—something you don’t have to pay attention to every moment. And when you do for the long haul, you want a plane that’s just going to kind of buzz there.”

Modifications included a sleeping mattress, a small steel tub for personal hygiene, the removal of most of the internal fittings to save weight, and a rudimentary autopilot.

“The important thing, though, was finding a way to refuel,” Bednarek says. “There had been a lot of experimentation up to this point with air-to-air refueling, but there was really no way to modify a Cessna 172 to air-to-air refueling. So they created an extra tank that could be filled from a truck on the ground. When they needed to refuel, they They would come down and fly very low and just above stall speed, and then a truck would come in and lift a hose and then use a pump to get the fuel into the plane. It was a really dramatic show. It’s a balloon, because they had to do it at night sometimes and it required some precision in Aviation “.

The fourth time is a charm

Tim’s first three attempts at the log ended abruptly with mechanical failures, the longest leaving him with his co-pilot in the air for nearly 17 days. But in September 1958, the same record was bested by another team, also flying a Cessna 172; It is now over 50 days old.

On his fourth attempt, Tim chose John Cook, who was also an aircraft mechanic, as the new co-pilot, after he had struggled to fit in with his previous attempt.

They took off on December 4, 1958, from McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. As with previous attempts, the first step was to fly low over a speeding car, to color in one of the landing gears and rule out cheating: “There was no way to track its altitude and airspeed at all times,” Bednarek says, “so they painted a white stripe.” On at least one of the tires. Then that would be shoveled if they ever landed, and before they actually landed they would check that none of the paint had been removed.”

The flight went smoothly at first, and the couple spent Christmas Day in the air. Every time they refuel—on a very straight stretch of road along the California-Arizona border—they’ll also get supplies and food, in the form of dishes from hacienda restaurants that have been mashed up to fit thermos flasks, making it practical to send them to the plane.

Bathroom breaks occurred in a collapsible camp toilet and the resulting plastic bags were later dumped over the desert. An extendable platform on the co-pilot’s side provides more space for shaving and showering (a quart of shower water will be sent each day).

The two would take turns sleeping, though the constant engine noise and aerodynamic vibrations made a restful night impossible. as a result of sleep deprivation On the 36th, Tim missed the controls and the plane flew alone for over an hour, at just 4,000 feet. Autopilot saved their lives – though it would stop working completely after only a few days.

The end, finally

On the thirty-ninth day, the electric pump that was sending fuel to the plane’s tanks broke down, forcing it to start completing the process manually. When they finally broke the record, on January 23, 1959, he rose The list of technical faults included, among other things, the cabin heater, fuel gauge and landing lights: “The important thing is that the engine kept running, which was really cool. It’s time to fly. Even if you keep it fueled and lubricated, It’s only heat and friction that will eventually cause problems.”

However, the two remained in the air and kept working for as long as they could, making sure their new record was impossible to beat. They endured for another 15 days, before finally landing at McCarran on February 7, 1959, after flying nonstop for more than two months and 150,000 miles.

“They decided they were past the point that no one else was going to try — and no one has,” Bednarek adds.

“I think they got to the end of the rope and decided it wouldn’t do any good for them to crash, and so they went down. They were in very bad shape: we know that such a period of inactivity can be very harmful to the body, and although they moved in the plane, only That they couldn’t stand or stretch, and they certainly couldn’t exercise or walk.

“It would be like sitting for 64 days – it’s not good for the human body. They should be taken off the plane.”

Will this record be beaten by a human crew? Bednarek believes that can only happen if the attempt involves an aircraft testing a new form of propulsion or energy source, to show its usefulness.

However, anyone aspiring to attempt it should heed the admonition of co-pilot John Cook, who said this when a reporter asked if he would do it again: “Next time I’m in the mood for endurance, I’ll go lock myself in a trash can.” With the vacuum cleaner running, turn on Bob [Timm] He served me T-shaped steaks cut into a thermos bottle. That is, until my psychiatrist opens for business in the morning.”