In 1958, two pilots over a desert in the southwestern United States achieved a feat that to this day has not yet been surpassed: flying an airplane for two months straight without a break. This is the story of the Cessna 172 and its two pilots Bob Timm and John Cook.
In the early decades of the 20th century, airplane pilots set records for endurance in the air. The idea was to see who could achieve the most efficient flight without refueling. In 1923, the milestone of refueling in the air for the first time was achieved. With 37 hours and 15 minutes of flight time, a new race began to see who could stay in the air the longest, consuming as much fuel as necessary.
During the following years, the 37 hours were surpassed until it began to be counted in days and not in hours. By 1935 the record stood at 27 days, 5 hours and 34 minutes. Fourteen years later, in 1949, the record was already at 46 days and 20 hours. In 1958 the record stood at 50 days on the air, with a total of 1,200 hours and 16 minutes.
The same year, two pilots flew non-stop for 64 days, almost 65 days in fact. It all started when Bob Timm, a slot machine mechanic at the Hacienda Hotel in Las Vegas, had an idea. He proposed to the hotel owner to sponsor an endurance flight with the plane. With the hotel’s name painted on the side of the plane, the owner agreed to the idea.
Before taking flight, Bob Timm first acquired a Cessna 172 aircraft and modified it for the stunt. These modifications included removing the entire interior, adding a refueling platform and a small “bathroom” so that the two pilots could easily wash themselves. With the plane ready, they made several test flights to see how the aircraft performed. Finally, on December 4, 1958, the two pilots took off with the Cessna 172 from McCarran Field in Las Vegas.
The plane needed refueling and so it descended twice a day near a road in Las Vegas without ever touching the ground. At that time, a tanker truck would line up with the plane and by means of a special platform would supply fuel to the plane in flight. The refueling process was performed 128 times during the 64 days of flight.
As the days went by, the plane began to weaken and suffer failures. It essentially ran for two months, so it was quite a feat that it didn’t break apart sooner. The pilots were tired. They hadn’t slept properly and it was taking a toll on their bodies and mental health.
They spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve flying over Nevada. By January 23rd, they had already beaten the previous record, but they stayed in the air for two more weeks until February 7, 1959. It was at that time that they landed back at McCarran Field in Las Vegas, completing 64 days, 22 hours and 18 minutes of flight time.
The Airbus’ High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) Zephyr was just four hours short of breaking the record imposed by the Cessna 172. It flew for 64 days, 18 hours and 26 minutes before crashing down in Arizona.
Zephyr is a super lightweight, solar powered aircraft meant to be controlled through satellite communication instead of needing a pilot onboard. It has a narrow fuselage made from carbon fibre composites, which make it only weigh 75 kilograms. Despite its fragile looking design, it is made to carry loads of up to 22kg and can operate at altitudes as high as 21,300 m. It can carry optical, infrared, LIDAR and hyperspectral sensors, as well as radars, which make it able to observe a land area of 20-30km.
As tests on the Zephyr are proving successful, Airbus has launched a connectivity services business through the creation of a dedicated HAPS Services Business, as a subsidiary of Airbus Defence and Space. The aim is to provide low-latency connectivity services from the stratosphere for telecommunications and Earth observation applications.