Since the first flight in 1903, there have been numerous remarkable feats that inspire awe and admiration. The ceaseless endeavour to push the boundaries of flight continues to fascinate and inspire generations of aviation enthusiasts. Among the many noteworthy flights, one particular journey stands out – the longest flight ever undertaken in a Cessna 172, a feat that underscored the impressive endurance and reliability of this iconic aircraft.
On December 4th, 1958, Robert Timm and John Cook embarked on a flight that wouldn’t end until February 1959 and etched their names into the record books. Their machine of choice was the humble Cessna 172.
The 172 Skyhawk is a four-seat, single-engine, high-wing, fixed-wing aircraft produced by the Cessna Aircraft Company. It’s one of the most popular and enduring aircraft in the world, with more than 44,000 units produced since it was first introduced in 1956!
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Powered typically by a Lycoming or Continental horizontally opposed, air-cooled, four-cylinder piston engine, the Cessna 172 offers a balance of power and economy.
Over the years, variants of the aircraft have featured power outputs ranging from 145 to 180 horsepower.
In terms of performance, the Cessna 172 can cruise at around 140 knots (around 260 km/h), has a range of about 800 miles (approximately 1,300 kilometres), and a service ceiling of around 13,500 feet (4,100 meters), though these figures can vary depending on the specific model and its configuration.
The cockpit of the 172 is straightforward and functional, contributing to its popularity as a training aircraft.
With a high-wing configuration, it provides good visibility for the pilots, making it a favourite for sightseeing and aerial survey roles.
Over the years, the Cessna 172 has seen numerous upgrades and modifications.
These include changes to the airframe, avionics upgrades, and improvements to the powerplant. The latest versions, such as the Cessna 172S, feature advanced avionics suites, including GPS navigation systems and autopilot capabilities, as well as improved engine technology.
This stalwart little plane was not designed for record-breaking long-distance flights; its usual realm was the world of flight training and private flying.
However, Timm and Cook had a vision: to keep their Cessna 172 airborne for an extraordinary duration that would demonstrate its robustness and reliability.
Known as the ‘Hacienda Flight,’ the journey commenced from McCarran Airfield in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Cessna 172, registration number N9172B, was essentially a stock model, save for a few modifications.
These included an additional fuel tank in the back seat, a special refuelling system, and a small sink behind the copilot seat for hygiene purposes.
The refuelling system was an ingenious adaptation that allowed the plane to be refuelled in mid-air. A truck equipped with a fuel pump would drive at a steady speed, while the Cessna would descend and match its speed.
A refuelling hose would then be handed over to Cook, who would secure it to a refuelling receptacle installed on the wing of the aircraft.
This refuelling method was practised and perfected over time, making it possible for the Cessna to stay aloft indefinitely.
The flight was not without its challenges. Just a few hours into the flight, the Cessna’s generator failed, leading to the loss of most electrical systems.
Despite this setback, Timm and Cook decided to press on, utilizing a small, portable generator to power their critical systems.
For their flight, Timm and Cook had to endure cramped conditions, harsh weather, and periods of utter monotony. Their meals were primarily in the form of sandwiches, fruit, and nuts, washed down with water and fruit juice.
Despite the discomfort, they adapted to the challenges, developing a rhythm and routine that saw them alternate between flying, eating, and sleeping. This endurance mission was not just a test of the Cessna 172’s capabilities but also a profound test of the human spirit.
After an incredible 64 days, 22 hours, and 19 minutes, the epic journey ended on February 7, 1959, when the Cessna 172 finally touched down at McCarran Airfield.
The flight set a world record for the longest flight duration by a manned, refuelled aircraft—a record that astonishingly stands till this day.
The Hacienda Flight of 1958-59 is a testimony to the indomitable human spirit, the innovation of mid-air refuelling, and the steadfast reliability of the Cessna 172. It stands as an inspiring lesson in endurance, meticulous planning, and flawless execution.
Reflecting on this remarkable journey, one can’t help but marvel at the small and inexpensive 172 itself.
Over six decades since its introduction, the aircraft continues to be a symbol of reliability and an enduring favourite among pilots around the globe.
The longest flight in a Cessna 172 remains a testament to the aircraft’s timeless design and ruggedness, embodying the spirit of aviation in its purest form.
To this day, the record-setting Cessna 172, known as ‘Hacienda,’ resides in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
As the famous saying goes, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
It truly is a small aircraft with an extraordinarily big heart.