(CNN) — In late August, a solar-powered drone called the Zephyr came close to breaking one of the longest-standing records in aviation.
The drone, operated by the US Army and produced by Airbus, flew for 64 days, 18 hours and 26 minutes before unexpectedly crashing in Arizona, just four hours shy of breaking the record for the longest continuous flight in history. .
That record was set 64 years ago, in 1959, by Robert Timm and John Cook, who flew aboard a four-seater plane through the skies of Las Vegas for 64 days, 22 hours, and 19 minutes.
It is surprising that the Zephyr, a light aircraft with modern technology that flew autonomously, not only failed to beat that time, but even if it had, Timm and Cook would have retained the world endurance record for crewed flight.
In fact, it’s no less amazing that Timm and Cook managed to stay in the air for so long, at a time closer to the Wright brothers’ first flight than it is today.
The fuel problem
In 1956, the Hacienda Hotel and Casino opened on the south end of the Las Vegas Strip.
It was one of the first family-oriented resorts in Las Vegas, and in search of publicity, the hotel owner accepted the suggestion of one of his employees: fly a plane with the hotel name on the side and use it to beat the flight endurance record, which was almost 47 days in the air and had been set in 1949.
The employee, a former World War II fighter pilot turned slot machine repairman named Robert Timm, was given $100,000 to organize the event, which was later linked to a fundraiser for cancer research.
Timm spent months modifying his chosen aircraft, a Cessna 172: “It was a relatively new design,” says Janet Bednarek, an aviation historian and professor at the University of Dayton. “It’s a roomy four-seater plane and it was known for being reliable and fairly easy to fly, something you don’t have to pay attention to all the time. And when you’re doing long-haul flights, you want a plane that just whizzes by. there”.
Modifications included a mattress for sleeping, a small steel sink for personal hygiene, the removal of most interior fittings to save weight, and a rudimentary autopilot.
“The important thing, though, was to create a way to refuel,” says Bednarek. “There had been a lot of experimentation with aerial refueling up until then, but there was no way to modify a Cessna 172 so that it could refuel in mid-flight. So they installed an additional tank that could be filled from a truck on the ground. When they needed to refuel, they would go down and they were flying very low, just above stall speed.
Then the truck would arrive, take a hose up and use a pump to transfer the fuel to the plane. It was a real display of aerial skill, because sometimes they had to do it at night and that required precision flying.”
the fourth is the charm
Timm’s first three attempts at the record ended abruptly due to mechanical failure, with the longest leaving him and his co-pilot airborne for around 17 days. In September 1958, however, the record was broken by another team, also flying a Cessna 172; now it stood at more than 50 days.
For his fourth attempt, Timm chose John Cook, who was also an aircraft mechanic, as his new co-pilot, since he did not get along with the old one.
They left on December 4, 1958 from McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. As in previous attempts, the first step was to fly low over a speeding car, to have one of the landing wheels painted and to rule out traps: “There would have been no way to track your altitude and speed at all times,” says Bednarek. , “so they painted a white stripe on at least one of the wheels. Before they landed, they would check that the paint hadn’t been scraped off.”
The flight went smoothly at first, and the couple spent Christmas Day in the air. Every time they refueled, on a very straight stretch of road along the California-Arizona border, they also received provisions and food, in the form of dishes from the ranch restaurants that had been pounded to fit in thermoses, making it which made it more practical to get them on the plane.
Bathroom breaks were taken on a collapsible toilet, and the resulting plastic bags were then dumped across the desert. An extendable platform on the passenger side provided more space for shaving and bathing (a liter of bathing water was sent up every other day).
The two took turns sleeping, though the incessant engine noise and aerodynamic vibrations made a quiet night impossible. Due to lack of sleep, on the 36th, Timm fell asleep at the controls and the plane flew solo for over an hour, at an altitude of just 4,000 feet. The autopilot had saved their lives, although it would stop working completely a few days later.
the end, finally
On the 39th, the electric pump that sent fuel to the plane’s tanks failed, forcing them to start completing the operation manually. When they finally broke the record, on January 23, 1959, the list of technical failures included, among others, the cabin heater, the fuel gauge and the landing lights: “The important thing was that the engine was still running, which is really remarkable. That’s a long time to be flying. Even if you keep it full of fuel and oil, eventually the heat and friction are going to cause problems,” says Bednarek.
Through it all, the two stayed airborne and kept flying for as long as possible to make sure their new record was unbeatable. They held out for another 15 days, before finally landing at McCarran on February 7, 1959, after having flown non-stop for more than two months and 150,000 miles.
“They had determined that they were past the point where no one else was going to try this…and no one has,” Bednarek adds.
“I think they had reached the limit and decided that there would have been no use for them crashing, so they went down. They were in very bad shape: we know that a period of inactivity like this can be very harmful to the body, and although they were moving in the plane , couldn’t get up or stretch, and certainly couldn’t exercise or walk.
“It would be like sitting for 64 days: that’s not good for the human body. They had to be taken off the plane.”
Will a human crew ever break this record? Bednarek believes that could only happen if the attempt involved an aircraft testing some new form of propulsion or power source, to prove its usefulness.
However, anyone who aspires to try it should heed the warning of co-pilot John Cook, who had this to say when asked by a reporter if he would do it again: “Next time I feel like an endurance flight, I’m going to lock myself in a trash can with a vacuum on it and I’ll ask Bob [Timm] Serve me chopped meat in a thermos. That, until my psychiatrist opens his office in the morning.”