Endurance Test, Circa 1958

150,000 miles without landing in a Cessna 172

March 1, 2008

During the months of December 1958 and January and February 1959, two young men flew a mission-modified Cessna 172 around and around over the desert Southwest for 64 days, 22 hours, and 19 minutes. The world endurance record in a propeller-driven airplane was set in that little Cessna almost 50 years ago.

Remember 1958? Arnold Palmer had just won his first of three Masters titles. Baltimore Colts fullback Alan Ameche had plunged across the goal line to beat the New York Giants in overtime in professional football, and gasoline was 24 cents a gallon. TIME magazine predicted that the electronic eyes of satellites would help forecast the weather, and President Eisenhower deployed the U.S. Marines to Lebanon.

In the 1920s, endurance records were recorded in hours—the first record time aloft of 35 hours, 18 minutes, and 30 seconds was established by Lt. John Macready and Lt. Oakley Kelly on October 5 and 6, 1922, in a Fokker T-2. In June and July 1935, aerial refueling permitted Fred and Al Key to stay aloft above Meridian, Mississippi, for 653 hours, 34 minutes (over 27 days) in Ole Miss, a Curtiss J–1 Robin. Both the Fokker T–2 and the Curtiss J–1 were large cabin-class airplanes. They were much larger than the Cessna 172 that still holds the record. In 1949 the light plane aloft record jumped to 721 hours, then to 1,124 hours, where it held for nine years until Jim Heth and Bill Burkhart flew their Cessna 172, The Old Scotchman, for 1,200 hours and 16 minutes over Dallas, Texas, during August and September 1958. That record stood for only 123 days before Bob Timm and John Cook broke it once and forever on January 23, 1959.

Then they flew on for an additional 15 days before landing on Saturday, February 7. Oddly enough, this record also ended the record-setting flight fever. Were these intrepid aviators risking life and limb for a noble cause? Nope—without exception they were trying to garner media attention for their sponsors.

The Hacienda Hotel

Judy and Warren “Doc” Bailey built the 265-room Hacienda, which was the first family-oriented hotel-casino in Las Vegas in 1956 at the far southern end of the Las Vegas Strip. Since the Hacienda catered to families, locals, and “low-rollers” it was nicknamed “Hayseed Heaven,” by the Strip’s more class-conscious players. Locals joked about the location, saying, “You can either go to Las Vegas or to the Hacienda.” The Hacienda is gone now, imploded in 1996 to make room for the Mandalay Bay.

Doc Bailey was convinced of the importance of publicity and was known for taking ideas from maids, valets, and even the cooks at the Hacienda. Bob Timm, an employee working as a slot machine mechanic at the Hacienda, suggested that Bailey sponsor an endurance flight. Timm was a big bear of a man—he reportedly weighed 240 pounds before the flight—who had flown bombers during World War II and was a highly experienced pilot who loved to fly.

Before long, Timm had convinced Bailey to commit $100,000 to the project. His plan was simple. The record-setting flight of a prosaic Cessna 172—with Hacienda Hotel prominently painted on the side—would draw nationwide attention to the hotel. It would surely be prominently featured on national news broadcasts.

But one serious roadblock loomed. Would the average law-abiding, church-going citizen be open-minded about a headline-grabbing flight that was being sponsored by a hotel located in Las Vegas, a town known for gambling and even gangster activity? In a flash of inspiration, Doc Bailey announced that the casino’s flight was a fundraiser for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

To add credibility to the effort, he enlisted Preston Foster, noted commentator and radio personality, to act as ground operations manager for the flight. And any average law-abiding, church-going citizen—or anyone else for that matter—wanting to guess how long the flight would stay aloft could send their guess with a cash contribution to this distinctly humanitarian cause and would automatically be entered to win $10,000 if their guess was closest to the actual time spent aloft. The logic is irrefutable. Two intrepid airmen take to the air to raise money for a humanitarian cause, and America is nudged into the idea that it’s OK to gamble when it backs a worthy cause.

The modified Cessna

“He told me about this project he was going to get involved in and wanted to know if I’d be interested in helping him. I told him ‘sure.’”—Irv Kuenzi, lead mechanic for the record-setting flight Kuenzi was a mechanic at Alamo Aviation and had already worked on N9217B before Timm bought it—with 1,500 hours total airframe time—for the attempt. Avionics included a Narco Omnigator Mk II and a Mitchell autopilot. Modifications took nearly a year. A 95-gallon Sorenson belly tank was installed on the airplane’s belly. An electric pump was rigged to transfer fuel to the airplane wing tanks. Through-firewall plumbing was installed so that the engine oil and oil filters could be changed without shutting off the engine. The interior was removed, and a folding accordion-style door replaced the co-pilot’s side door.

A small platform could be lowered out of the co-pilot’s door to provide additional footing during refueling operations. A single four-inch-thick foam pad measuring four feet by four feet was installed on the co-pilot’s side of the cabin after the seat was removed. There was even a small stainless steel sink installed to enable the two-man crew to wash up and shave. Timm also was a certificated airplane mechanic. He instructed Kuenzi to install a primer-like system so that alcohol could be squirted into the combustion chamber of each cylinder of the engine. Timm believed that his alcohol-injection system would prevent the buildup of carbon in the combustion chambers. Kuenzi disagreed but reluctantly installed the system.

Timm contacted Continental Motors Corp. (CMC) of Muskegon, Michigan, the manufacturer of the airplane’s six-cylinder 145-horsepower engine, explained his cause, and got the sales manager at CMC to agree to supply a new engine for the flight. Timm asked for a special engine, but the sales manager quickly realized that the publicity generated for CMC by this attempt could easily backfire if a specially built engine successfully powered the Hacienda attempt into the record books. Pretty soon everyone would be asking for special engines.

Kuenzi later learned that the sales manager had asked one of the female office employees to step down to the production line and pick out the new 145 that she liked best. That made it special enough in CMC’s eyes.

Kuenzi removed the 450-hour-since-new engine from the 1958 Cessna 172, installed the “special” engine, and hooked up the alcohol system. Timm and his first co-pilot launched, but problems cut the first two flights short. A note written in Timm’s diary of those early flights illustrates the innocence of the 1950s when he wrote that the entire sky lit up one morning at 4 a.m. He later found out that he had witnessed one of the 57 above ground atomic bomb blasts set off that year in a testing area located 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. A moratorium suspending above ground testing took effect on October 31, 1958. The blast took place during the ill-fated third flight, which was cut short because of burned exhaust valves in the “special” engine.

Although the first three flights never stayed aloft longer than 17 days, Timm knew that he wasn’t getting along with his co-pilot, so he dismissed him. Timm was becoming frustrated by the delays and the series of mechanical problems. In addition, the team of Heth and Burk-hart had just completed their 1,200-hour (over 50 days) flight on September 21. Kuenzi removed the damaged engine and re-installed the used 450-hour-since-new engine. Then he quietly, and without telling Timm, disconnected the alcohol delivery tube and rerouted it so the alcohol was pumped out the bottom of the lower cowling. Kuenzi’s hunch worked: That used engine had clocked more than 2,000 operating hours—1,559 hours continuously—by the end of the record-setting flight.

The new co-pilot

John Wayne Cook, a single 33-year-old airplane mechanic and pilot at Alamo Aviation in Las Vegas, had also worked on N9217B. Like Timm, he had logged time flying for Trans World Airlines (TWA) and Bonanza Airlines. One day Timm asked Cook whether he was willing to be his co-pilot. Cook said, “Sure, I’ll try.” Pictures of Cook at the end of the flight show a young man, weighing 180 pounds distributed on a tall, lanky frame with a ready smile below a pencil-thin mustache. He was given to wearing snap-button western-style shirts.

Timm’s spouse, Lorene, later said of Cook, “He always gave Bob the credit. But without John Cook there wouldn’t have been a flight.” In addition to flying, the agile Cook regularly ventured out onto the small service platform attached to the right landing gear strut and, reaching across the front of the airplane, cleaned the windshield. He especially enjoyed performing this trick while an airplane carrying news photographers was alongside for pictures.

Finally, on December 4, 1958, at six seconds past 3:52 p.m. local time, they took off from McCarran Field in Las Vegas. The FAA had granted a waiver that permitted the airplane to be operated at weights that exceeded the maximum takeoff weight by 350 to 400 pounds. The airplane, with its two inhabitants, was to stay aloft for 64 days, 22 hours, 19 minutes, and five seconds. To prevent any funny business such as clandestine landings, officials raced down a runway at McCarran Field in a convertible Ford Thunderbird and painted white stripes on the tires as Timm flew above the racing car.

A Ford truck, donated by Cashman Auto in Las Vegas, was outfitted with a fuel pump, tank, and other paraphernalia required to support the aircraft in flight. When fuel was required, a rendezvous would be arranged on a stretch of straight road in the desert near Blythe, California. An electric winch lowered a hook, the fuel pump hose was picked up, and Timm or Cook inserted it into the belly tank. It took a little more than three minutes to fill the belly tank.

The total fuel capacity of the airplane was 142 gallons. Plans called for refueling twice daily. Sometimes weather or the inevitable glitches upset the schedule, and a new rendezvous was worked out by radio. This activity was repeated more than 128 times.

Timm and Cook spent a couple of days flying in the vicinity of Las Vegas to make sure the technical bugs had been worked out before flying south toward Blythe, where the area was less mountainous and the terrain was lower. The first few weeks passed without incident, and soon Christmas was upon them. One of Timm’s sons, Greg, was six years old that Christmas.

“They flew by, in the airplane in the daytime, and tossed out of the airplane candy cane stockings with little parachutes. As they floated down my brother and I tried to snatch them before they hit the ground,” recalls Greg Timm.

The chefs at the Hacienda went out of their way to feed the crew healthy meals made from the freshest ingredients. The serving method was less genteel—all of the warm food was chopped up so it would fit into thermos jugs before being passed up to the crew. To pass the time, the pair read comic books, did exercises, and made up games such as “guess how many cars we will pass in the next hour,” as well as performing the daily tasks of fueling, eating, and maintaining communications with the support and ground staff. Food, water for washing, towels, oil, and other supplies were passed up from the ground. In spite of all the planning there were still close calls.

The danger of in-flight bathing

In his diary, John Cook wrote, “We got a quart of bath water, a large towel and soap every other day.”

On January 12, 1959, after refueling chores, Timm removed his clothes and stepped out onto the platform for a refreshing sponge bath. He started by brushing his teeth. Just then Cook realized that the airplane wasn’t going to clear an upcoming ridge if the platform wasn’t pulled in. Cook yelled at Timm to pull in the platform and later told of seeing his partner struggling to complete that task—buck naked, and weighing 240 pounds, with a toothbrush sticking out of one side of his mouth and toothpaste streaming out of the other. They cleared the ridge but learned to delay hygienic activities until they were over flatter terrain.

They flew most of the hours over southwestern deserts in the Blythe, California, and Yuma, Arizona, areas but would occasionally fly as far west as Van Nuys and Los Angeles to garner radio and TV publicity. The entries in Cook’s journal begin to reflect the effects that loss of sleep, the lack of physical activity, the constant engine noise, and daily chores were having on both of the crew.

“Stalled out, overloaded, across the side of an uphill slope trying to get turned around with a full load in belly tank and that made us realize what our chances would be at night very slim so we stick around airport at night for that beautiful smooth runway,” he wrote.

Timm and Cook rotated flying duties every four hours, but it was difficult to get enough sleep during the daylight hours. According to a journal entry on January 9—the thirty-sixth day aloft—the airplane flew itself for more than an hour. Timm had dozed off over the Blythe airport at 2:55 a.m.—just minutes before he was to awaken Cook—and awoke at 4 a.m. halfway to Yuma.

The Mitchell wing-leveler type autopilot was still working that night, and it undoubtedly saved their lives. “I awoke and was flying in a canyon heading due south. I flew for two hours before I recognized any lights or the cities. I made a vow to myself that I would never tell John what had happened,” Timm later told a reporter.

More equipment failures

The generator failed on day 39. From that day forward, all the fuel had to be transferred to the wing tanks with a hand pump. A wind-driven generator was installed on the strut, but its output was limited. Then just what they feared happened—a night refueling. There was no moon that night in mid-January. Cook taped a flashlight onto the hook and lowered it as Timm held position a few feet above the speeding fuel truck. Fortunately, the ground crew had anticipated this possibility and had deployed a pathfinder truck positioned about 300 feet ahead of the fuel truck to provide visual reference for the weary crew. An entry in Cook’s journal said it was “as black a night as I have ever seen.”

Time was taking a toll on the men and equipment. On January 23 they broke the existing record. They had accomplished their goal but decided to keep flying for as long as they could to protect the record they had worked so hard to capture.

“We had lost the generator, tachometer, autopilot, cabin heater, landing and taxi lights, belly tank fuel gauge, electrical fuel pump, and winch,” Cook wrote.

The spark plugs and engine combustion chambers were loading up with so much carbon by the beginning of February that the reduced engine power made climbing with a full load of fuel difficult.

Finally, they landed

On February 7, 1959, N9217B finally returned to earth at McCarran Field. Cook was quoted as saying that “there sure seemed to be a lot of fuss over a flight with one takeoff and one landing.” Timm and Cook had to be helped from the grimy and exhaust-streaked airplane.

Their epic flight accomplished Timm’s goal of proving that small aircraft flying was safe. Timm returned to work at the Hacienda. Cook continued his career as a pilot. He was 70 when he passed away in 1995. The aircraft was displayed at the Hacienda for about two years. Soon the hoopla over record flights faded, and in 1960 the airplane was flown north to its new owner in Canada.

Before he passed away in 1978, Timm reminisced about his flying days and told his sons that he longed to locate 72B. His father’s wish eventually prompted Timm’s second son, Steve, to launch a focused effort to find and return N9172B to Las Vegas. He found it on a farm in Carrot River, Saskatchewan, Canada. He brought it back to Las Vegas in 1988. In 1992 the McCarran Aviation Heritage Museum (now the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum) obtained 72B for a permanent exhibit. It’s been restored to its pre-flight condition.

Today, N9172B is back in Las Vegas. The 1958 Cessna 172 that holds the world endurance flight record hangs from the ceiling of the baggage claim area at McCarran International Airport. Next time you fly in to Las Vegas, take a minute to look up at one of the most prosaic record-setting airplanes in the world. And imagine what it must have been like to spend more than two months living in a Cessna 172.

E-mail the author at steve.ells@aopa.org.