The Ultimate Endurance Record

Posted by in Blogging in Formation

In a world full of world records, endurance — or “time aloft” — has been a prominent metric going back to the very genesis of powered flight. Even today you can see granite signposts along the Wright brothers flightpath at Kitty Hawk, marking the distance and time achieved by each successive attempt on that historic day. Powered flight was only a few hours old and already the race was on!

The Draw

I’ve been fascinated by endurance records for a long time. For one thing, these feats highlight the tremendous achievements of technology. Voyager’s around-the-world flight in 1986 is but one well-known example. Composite technology allowed that 900 pound aircraft to carry 9,000 pounds of fuel, enough to more than double the previous non-stop record of 12,532 nm. Of course, it took them just over nine days to do it. Nine days! Imagine spending that long trapped with another person in a cockpit the size of a phone booth, a screaming engine just a couple of feet behind you. Oh, and your noise-cancelling headset circuitry failed. Insulation? There was none — remember, the each pound of added weight required nine more pounds of fuel to carry it around the globe.

The closest I’ve come to endurance flying would be a 15.7 flight hour, three-leg westbound coast-to-coast flight in a normally aspirated Skylane in 2002. During my years at the California Medfly Project, my logbook indicates I’d fly as much as 8.6 hours in a day. Today, I do plenty of long-haul flying on the Gulfstream, although it’s a bit easier on autopilot at 45,000 feet than it was hand-flying all day at low altitude in the U-21A.

Speaking of records, the new Gulfstream G650 recently set a record, circumnavigating the globe westbound in 41 hours. They did it in relatively cushy surroundings, as you can see in this video. Beds for the off-duty pilots, a full galley, and a stand-up cabin with multiple lavatories.

Human Interest

At their heart, these records are usually stories of human endurance rather than anything mechanical. It’s not even about the flying, really. A drone staying aloft for a year wouldn’t be nearly as amazing as a human doing it for half that length of time. Which is more impressive, a satellite orbiting the planet for a decade, or Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov remaining aboard space station Mir for 437 straight days? Polyakov, by the way, has logged a total of 678 days in space. Imagine how much solar radiation his body has absorbed!

This month’s Blogging in Formation topic was “aviation history”, and since yours truly is last on the list I can look back and see that every post in the group was, at it’s heart, about people more than anything else. For example, Karlene’s topic was the amazing support her spouse provides; Brent wrote about the courage of Spitfire reconnaissance pilots during World War II; Dan mused about gender bias and Jerrie Mock’s pioneering 1964 around-the-world flight.

The Mother of All Endurance Records

One of the best parts about endurance flying is that, unlike speed, altitude, time-to-climb, and other such records, you needn’t spent millions of dollars. It all about determination. In fact, despite modern space-age technology, the all-time aviation endurance record wasn’t set in an X-plane or other exotic experimental craft. There was no NASA involvement, no high-tech materials or techniques used. It was achieved in the simplest, most plain-Jane general aviation aircraft imaginable. It’s a record that still stands today and might never be broken.

On December 4th 1958, a nondescript Cessna 172 took off from McCarran Field in Las Vegas with two pilots on board. They stayed aloft for more than two months, landing back at McCarran on February 7, 1959.

I’m ready to get out of a Skyhawk after about sixty-five minutes. These guys were flying for sixty-five days! The record attempt was sponsored by the Hacienda Hotel, which today is nothing but a memory, having been imploded and replaced by the Mandalay Bay resort. But that little Skyhawk is still here. It hangs from the ceiling in the baggage claim area at McCarran International Airport, and I’d bet less than one in a thousand who walk by it are aware that it stayed in the air longer than any other manned vehicle in the universe except a space station. No space shuttle or Apollo moon shot ever came close to touching that little Cessna’s record.

Refueling was done by flying in formation with a support vehicle.  The aircraft was equipped with a belly tank, but even so, they refueled 128 times in total.

Refueling was done by flying in formation with a support vehicle. The aircraft was equipped with a belly tank, but even so, they refueled 128 times in total.

The flying itself was probably some of the most boring you can imagine. Pilots Bob Timm and John Cook spent most of their time flying circuits around Yuma and Blythe. Refueling, as well as the transfer of food and supplies, was accomplished by rendezvousing with a moving car or truck along an open stretch of highway. If you’ve ever been out there, there’s not much to see beyond an endless expanse of the prototypical southwestern desert.

The real story here is, as always, the human one. How do two people live in a loud, vibrating contraption for such a long time? No privacy, no quiet, and not much sleep either. The two pilots flew in four-hour shifts, meaning neither of them got more than four hours of sleep at a stretch for more than two months. I’m not sure I could do that in the peace and quiet of my own home, let alone a mid-50s vintage Skyhawk. Aircraft of that era had great useful loads, but they weren’t exactly known for their plush amenities or soundproofing.

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.

This is very typical of aviation — the workload rises just as fatigue is diminishing the pilot’s capabilities. Their exhaustion must have been overwhelming after a month and a half in that torture chamber. And then they lost cabin heat (it was winter, remember) and the autopilot, yet still managed to fly on for another fifteen days. Despite being little more than a wing leveler, the loss of the autopilot must have been particularly difficult, as it would have required someone to have their hands on or near the controls more or less around the clock from that point on.

Can you imagine the logbook entry for this flight? “1500 hours, 128 mid-air refuelings, one landing.” The ground track mileage was sufficient to have flown around the earth seven times. Any way you slice it, this was an impressive feat by a couple of ordinary people, one a slot machine technician and the other an aviation mechanic. Aside from the belly tank and a few minor mods, the aircraft and powerplant were basically stock. One wonders how long it took after they landed before those two could stomach the idea of going back up in the air.

It’s interesting how some record-setting aviators — Lindbergh, for example — become household names while others never catch on. Even among pilots, the names Bob Timm and John Cook probably do not ring a bell. I wish they did, because their 54 year old record is a testament to what can be accomplished with sufficient determination. That’s something we could all use a little more of, don’t you think?


This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.