January 30, 2023

The world’s longest flight spent more than two months in the air

5 min read


Late last August, a solar-powered drone called the Zephyr nearly broke one of aviation’s most enduring records.

The unmanned aircraft, operated by the US military and manufactured by Airbus, flew for 64 days, 18 hours and 26 minutes before unexpectedly crashing in Arizona – the longest ever. Just four hours shy of breaking the longest flight record.

The record was set 64 years ago in 1959 by Robert Timm and John Cook, who flew a four-seater airplane over Las Vegas for 64 days, 22 hours and 19 minutes.

It is noteworthy that the Zephyr – a light aircraft with advanced technology that flew autonomously – not only failed to beat this time, but even if it had, the team and Cook would have been able to fly the crew. So the world endurance record would have been maintained.

In fact, it’s nothing short of amazing that Tim and Cook managed to stay in the air for so long, in an era closer to the Wright brothers’ first flight than it is today.

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

It was one of the first family-oriented resorts in Las Vegas, and in search of publicity, the hotel’s owner followed a suggestion from one of his employees: fly a plane with the hotel’s name on it, and beat the flight. Use to give. Endurance record, on which stood. About 47 days in the air and set in 1949.

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

Tim spent months modifying the plane he chose, a Cessna 172: “It was a relatively new design,” says Janet Badenreck, an aviation historian and professor at the University of Dayton. “It’s a spacious four-seater and was known for being reliable and easy to fly – something you don’t have to pay attention to all the time. And when you’re flying for long periods If there are, then you want an airplane that is only there in one way.

These modifications included a mattress for sleeping, a small steel sink for personal hygiene, the removal of most interior fittings to save weight, and a rudimentary autopilot.

“The important thing, however, was to create a way to refuel,” says Bednarek. “There had been a lot of experimentation with aerial refueling, but there really wasn’t a way to modify the Cessna 172 to refuel in the air. So they set up an additional tank that was trucked in on the ground. could be filled. When they needed to refuel, they would come down and fly very low and just above stall speed, then the truck would come along and hook up a hose and then transfer the fuel to the plane. used a pump. It was really a dramatic show of airmanship, as they had to do this sometimes at night and it required some precision flying.

Robert Timm (front) and John Cook fly their modified Cessna 172.

Tim’s first three attempts at the record ended abruptly due to mechanical problems, with the longest attempt leaving him and his co-pilot in the air for nearly 17 days. In September 1958, however, the record itself was set by another team, also flying a Cessna 172. It now stands at over 50 days.

For his fourth attempt, Tim chose John Cook, also an airplane mechanic, as his new co-pilot, having struggled on his previous attempt.

They took off from McCarren Airport in Las Vegas on December 4, 1958. As with previous attempts, the first step was to fly down a high-speed car, paint one of the landing wheels and rule out deception: “There’s no way to track their altitude and wind speed all the time. “So they painted a white stripe on at least one of the tires,” Bednarek says. After that if they ever land it will be rough, and before their actual landing they will check to see that none of the paint is scratched.”

The flight went smoothly at first, and the pair spent Christmas Day in the air. Each time they refueled – on the very straight road along the California-Arizona border – they also received supplies and food, in the form of dishes from hacienda restaurants mashed up to fit into thermos flasks, which It used to be more. Practical to send them to the plane.

The collapsible camp toilet in the bathroom broke and plastic bags were thrown onto the desert as a result. An extendable platform on the co-pilot side provided more space for shaving and bathing (a quart of bath water would be sent every other day).

The two took turns sleeping, though the constant engine noise and aerodynamic vibrations made a restful night impossible. As a result of lack of sleep, On the 36th day, Tim fell asleep at the controls and the plane flew on its own for just over an hour at an altitude of 4,000 feet. The autopilot saved his life – although it would stop working completely after just a few days.

Aerial refueling

On the 39th day, the electrical pump supplying fuel to the ship’s tanks failed, forcing them to complete the operation manually. When they finally beat the record on January 23, 1959. The list of technical faults included, among other things, the cabin heater, fuel gauge and landing lights: “The main thing was that the engine ran, which is really remarkable. A lot of time to fly. Even if you Keep adding fuel and oil, eventually only heat and friction cause problems,” says Bednarek.

Nevertheless, the two stayed in the air and kept going as long as possible, to ensure that their new record would be impossible to beat. They endured another 15 days, flying nonstop for two months and more than 150,000 miles, before finally landing at McCarran on February 7, 1959.

“They had decided that they were past the point where no one else would try it — and no one else did,” Bednarek adds.

“I think they had reached the end of their rope and decided that it would do them no good to fall, and so they came down. They were in pretty bad shape: we know that such inactivity A period of time can be very bad for the body, and although they could walk around in an airplane, they couldn’t stand or stretch and they certainly couldn’t exercise. Walking around.

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

Will this record ever be beaten by a human crew? Badenreck believes this could only happen if an aircraft in the effort is testing a new form of propulsion or energy source to demonstrate its effectiveness.

However, anyone willing to try should heed the warning of co-pilot John Cook, who said this when a reporter asked if he would do it again: “Next time I fly endurance Feeling in the mood, I’m going. Lock yourself in the trash with the vacuum cleaner running, and keep Bob. [Timm] Serve me sliced ​​T-bone steaks in a thermos bottle. That is, until my psychiatrist opens for business in the morning.

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