The Longest Plane Flight Without Landing Was 64 Days Of Madness

Next time you’re bracing for a long-haul flight, spare a thought for Robert Timm and John Cook. In 1958-1959, the two pilots set the record for the world’s longest-ever flight when they flew non-stop for 64 days, 22 hours, and 19 minutes over Las Vegas, landing on February 7, 1959. In total, the journey clocked 240,000 kilometers (150,000 miles), equivalent to over six journeys around the Earth. 

Their endurance flight record has stood for 65 years. In fact, it hasn’t even been beaten by uncrewed autonomous aircraft. In 2022, a solar-powered drone called Zephyr came close, but it ended up crashing down after 64 days, 18 hours, and 26 minutes – less than 4 hours away from breaking the record.

The story behind the world’s longest flight is an aptly strange and incredible one. In 1956, the Hacienda Hotel and Casino opened its doors on the Las Vegas Strip in Paradise, Nevada. To promote its grand opening, its owners agreed to pull off a publicity stunt of epic proportions: paint the hotel’s name on the side of a plane and use it to complete the longest flight endurance record.

The ambitious plan was placed in the hands of Timm, a former World War II bomber pilot who recently joined the hotel’s staff as a slot machine mechanic.

The chosen plane was a Cessna 172, a small single-engine aircraft that was mass-produced. Numerous modifications were made to ensure the plane was fit for purpose, including the installation of a 95-gallon belly tank for extra fuel. 

“The important thing, however, was to create a way to refuel. There had been a lot of experiments up to this point with aerial refueling, but there really was no way to modify a Cessna 172 to be refueled in midair. So they set up an extra tank that could be filled from a truck on the ground,” Janet Bednarek, an aviation historian and professor at the University of Dayton, told CNN in 2023. 

“When they needed to refuel, they would come down and fly very low and just above stall speed, then the truck came along and winched up a hose and then used a pump to transfer the fuel into the airplane. It really was a dramatic show of airmanship, because they had to do it at night sometimes and that required some precision flying,” added Bednarek.

Timm and Cook’s Cessna 172 aircraft is on display in the passenger terminal at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

Timm’s first three attempts ended in failure due to several mechanical failures, including  – perhaps unsurprisingly – issues with refueling. 

Not deterred, however, Timm decided to set out on a fourth attempt alongside Cook, an airplane mechanic. On December 4, 1958, the duo set off from McCarran Airport in Las Vegas and would not set foot on the ground again for over 64 days.

Each refueling session would take place on a dead straight road along the California-Arizona border where the plane could fly low and a vehicle could run alongside their path. They’d also use these opportunities to pass food, water, and other supplies.

If you’re wondering about toilet trips, the pair would simply head to the back of the aircraft cabin and use a foldable toilet made for camping. The used bags would then be unceremoniously tossed out of the window into the desert. 

A mattress was situated in the back of the small cabin and the pair slept in turns – although that’s easier said than done while flying on a noisy, small aircraft. Cook made daily entries in a diary, which reportedly became more delirious as the mission went on, likely owing to lack of sleep, stress, physical fatigue, and sheer boredom.

Lack of sleep almost became the death of the two pilots. On the 36th day of the flight, Timm fell asleep at the wheel of the plane and it flew by itself on autopilot for over an hour at an altitude of 1,200 meters (4,000 feet). A few days later, the autopilot system was kaputt, underlining that this sleep-induced screw-up could never happen again. 

When approaching the 65th day, Timm and Cook decided to call it quits. After all, the record was well and truly theirs – and would remain so even until this day. 

Robert Timm died in 1976 and John Cook in 1995, by which time the piloting pair had firmly established themselves in the aviation history books. Their record-breaking flight in 1959 is even more remarkable when you consider they were closer in time to the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903 than today.

Clearly, however, achieving such bold feats comes at a price. 

“Next time I feel in the mood to fly endurance, I’m going to lock myself in a garbage can with the vacuum cleaner running, and have Bob [Timm] serve me T-bone steaks chopped up in a Thermos bottle. That is, until my psychiatrist opens for business in the morning,” Cook told a reporter when asked if he’d consider another endurance flight, as per CNN.

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