Imagine living in a tiny studio apartment. You barely have enough to lie down, let alone do anything normal people might want to do in their homes. Now imagine that you’re sharing this space with someone else and that it’s not an apartment; instead, it’s actually a single-engine small airplane that won’t touch the ground for more than two months.
That’s more or less the hell that Robert Timm and John Cook decided to put themselves through when they set the world record for longest continuous flight by living in a Cessna 172 as it flew over Las Vegas, Nevada for 64 days, 22 hours and 19 minutes in 1959. The stunt was done as a promotion for the then-new Hacienda hotel and casino, which Timm – an ex-WWII fighter pilot turned slot machine repairman – suggested to hotel management.
The Hacienda gave Timm $100,000 ($1,046,079.31 in today’s money) to put the stunt together under the guise of being a cancer research fundraiser. Part of that money went towards purchasing a then-relatively-new Cessna 172 single-engine propeller airplane which has, in the decades since its introduction, made a name for itself as being more or less the Volvo 240 of the sky: safe, stable, and reliable.
To make the plane a bit more suited to purpose, Timm modified the Cessna – typically a four-seat aircraft – by adding a mattress, a small sink, and a very basic autopilot system. He also removed many of the plane’s interior fittings to save some weight. They also painted the Hacienda Hotel’s logo on the side of the plane for obvious reasons.
So, Timm now had his machine, which was part billboard, part transportation, and part prison cell, and he was just about ready to take to the skies. The last huge remaining issue from a technological standpoint was fuel. Being the late 50s, mid-air refueling wasn’t really a thing, and it was definitely not something he could rig up for the Cessna even if it were, but unlike big planes and fighters, the Cessna had a trick up its sleeve: it was really, really slow.
How is being slow an asset? Well, airplanes must maintain a minimum speed to stay in the air. That speed — called the stall speed — is different for every aircraft, but the Cessna 172 only had to keep above 55 mph to stay aloft. This led to the decidedly sketchy solution of having whoever was flying the plane get incredibly low to the ground and stay just above stall speed while a truck paced the plane on the ground and transferred fuel up to the plane via a hose.
So, with everything more or less figured out, Timm set about actually setting the record, but his first three attempts were foiled by mechanical trouble. His fourth attempt with co-pilot, airplane mechanic John Cook, began on December 4, 1958, when they took off from Vegas’ McCarran Airport (now known as Harry Reid International Airport).
During the attempt, food was passed up to the plane from the Hacienda kitchens during fueling, but it had all been mashed up and shoved into Thermos bottles to make it easier to get into the plane. Bathroom duties were dealt with via a camp toilet, and the plastic bags filled with crap were flung haphazardly into the Mojave. Bathing only sort of happened, thanks to a quart of bath water sent up every other day, which leads us to believe that the inside of that plane got pretty ripe. Noise and vibration from the single engine made sleeping pretty tough too.
By the time the duo decided to pull the plug on their flight, the little Cessna had undergone a bunch of mechanical failures. These included the autopilot, the pump for transferring fuel, the landing lights, the fuel gauge, and the cabin heater, which ensured that everything was both dangerous and miserable.
When Timm and Cook finally landed, they had to be pulled out of the plane as they were unable to walk thanks to being unable to stand or move normally for over two months. It’s unclear whether there were other lasting physiological effects from the flight, but by the end of the 64 days, 22 hours, and 19 minutes, the duo had traveled around 150,000 miles.
While their record was very nearly beaten by a solar-powered drone in 2022, it’s incredibly unlikely that no flight crewed by human beings will ever top what Robert Timm and John Cook achieved. Frankly, who’d want to?