On 7 February 1959 Robert Timm and John Cook achieved a record that could not be equalled even today. In fact the world remembered their record only recently, in August 2022 a solar battery powered drone called the Zephyr, produced by Airbus and operated by the US Air Force was just 4 hours away from breaking the 64 day, 22 hour and 19 minute record for flight endurance, a 64 year old record!
On December 4, 1958 at 03:52, Robert Timm – a World War II veteran pilot and John Cook, a mechanic, took off from McCarran Airport in Las Vegas in a 4-seat Cessna 172.
The beginning of the story
It all starts in Las Vegas with a casino, of course. The Hacienda Hotel and Casino had opened on the Strip in 1956 and needed the publicity. The casino’s owner, Warren Bayley, asked his employees for their opinions on how he could advertise his casino so that the location would get more customers. Robert Timm, who had meanwhile retrained as a slot machine repairman, came up with the idea of making an endurance flight that would break the record for the longest flight time at the time (50 days and 16 minutes). The owner of the casino was very excited about the idea and offered a budget of $100,000 to get everything ready, and Timm had to make several technical modifications to get the flight machine ready for the attempt, in particular adding an extra fuel tank with an electric pump to transfer fuel to the wing tanks, which would provide more range in the air and not have to refuel too often in flight, which was both difficult and risky.
Technical modifications included a Narco Omnigator Mk II and a Mitchell autopilot. A quick change of engine oil and oil filters was provided with the engine running. Only the 4th attempt succeeded because the first three attempts to set an endurance record failed due to mechanical failures – refuelling problems, a clogged fuel filter and engine knocking. Timm also realized he needed a co-driver he could get along with. And he found John Wayne Cook, a young pilot with a fair amount of experience who was a certified mechanic.
In order to avoid problems in the homologation of the record, the wheels of the aircraft were painted white, which would have allowed the observation that the aircraft had landed for rest or repairs. The plane obtained fuel, food and any other support by delivery from a truck that was traveling on a straight stretch of highway near Blythe, California. The two pilots established a routine in which they took turns flying the plane for four hours at a time. They slept when not in the pilot’s seat or assisting with refueling or other tasks.
Bathroom breaks took place on a collapsible toilet, and the resulting plastic bags were later dumped in the desert. An extendable platform on the co-pilot’s side provided more space for shaving and washing.
The two took turns sleeping, although the incessant engine noise and aerodynamic vibrations made a restful night impossible. As a result of sleep deprivation, on the 36th day, Timm dozed off at the controls and the plane flew alone for over an hour at an altitude of just 1,300 metres on autopilot. It had saved their lives – although it would cease to function completely just a few days later. From that moment on, a new trial began for them. Unable to use the autopilot, they had to have a tighter routine, and one’s life depended on the other’s endurance.
On 23 January 1959 they had broken the previous record, at which point the two made the decision to stay in the air as long as possible so that their record could never be broken. They held on for two more weeks and on 7 February 1959 they landed. They flew 240,000 km non-stop, a distance equivalent to circling the Earth six times around the Equator.
Aside from the record itself, an important result of this extraordinary endeavor was that the American public finally began to accept that if a light private plane can stay in the air for over two months without incident, it means that private plane operations are indeed safe and reliable. Robert Timm died on July 3, 1976, and John Cook on October 25, 1995, both in Las Vegas. The Hacienda Hotel was demolished in December 1996.