Robert Elgin Timm and John Wayne Cook Sr. have been selected for their contributions leading to a public recognition of the safety and reliability of private aircraft operations. Early aviation was one continuing set of experiments related to what could go up and for how long. Crashes and fatalities were routine until WWI. Military requirements drove the development of safer aircraft designs throughout the war and, after the successful conclusion of WW I, the Army Air Service continued being the major driver in the evolution of aircraft improvements.
By 1938, the accident rate had dropped to 125.9 per 100,000 flight hours and by the end of WWII the rate had dropped to 77.8 per 100,000 flight hours. By 1954, the rate was down to 37.7 per 100,000 flight hours. Robert Timm felt that it was important for the general public to recognize just how safe flying had become. Robert was born March 8, 1926, in Nora Springs, Iowa. He served as a bomber pilot in the Army Air Corps during the 1940s and, in 1956, decided to work for one of the commercial airlines as a pilot. While traveling to Southern California to take a pre-employment test, he stopped in Las Vegas and decided that the 24 hour a day lifestyle was what he wanted. The town was booming and opportunities existed everywhere.
1958 found Bob working for Warren “Doc” Bayley at his Hacienda Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. Doc was always looking for new ways to market his property and frequently asked his employees for their ideas. Robert saw an opportunity to increase public awareness of how safe flying was and advertize the hotel at the same time by going for an endurance record. When he pitched the idea to Warren, Doc immediately budgeted $100,000 for the project.
Bob purchased a used Cessna 172 from Alamo Airways in Las Vegas. The planes interior was gutted except for the pilot’s seat, a small sink was installed, a four foot by four foot mat was added for a bed, the passenger door was removed and a folding door was added as well as an exterior platform on the right side of the aircraft, and a belly tank was installed for more fuel. Other modifications were made to the aircraft to allow in-flight replacement of fuel and oil filters. Finally, a new Continental engine was installed before attempting the record breaking flight was to depart. Bob and his copilot made three attempts at setting the new world record but all were forced to an early ending due to mechanical failures. The third flight had only lasted 17 days but Bob had realized he and the copilot were not compatible. Bob went searching for a replacement and found John Cook, a young man from Illinois who was single. John was a pilot with Alamo Airlines and a certified mechanic. He had also flown for TWA and bonanza Airlines.
The first thing the new team did was to pull the Continental engine and replace it with the original Cessna engine that had 450 hours on it. Additional modifications were made to include the addition of another fuel tank and the plane was ready to go. The record to beat was 50 days 16 minutes and had just been set in August and September of 1958. On December 4, 1958, Timm and Cook took off from McCarren Airport 3:52 pm. They made a pass to allow the chase vehicle passenger to paint white stripes on the aircrafts tires and then flew off to break the record.
Whenever the plane needed fuel or other support, it had to be pumped or passed up from a truck that raced down a straight section of highway near Blythe, CA. The Hacienda’s chefs prepared gourmet meals for Bob and John to enjoy during their flight. Unfortunately, each meal had to be chopped up and put into thermos bottles and passed up to the plane just like everything else.
The two pilots settled into a routine where they took turns flying the plane for four hours at a time. If they weren’t in the pilot’s seat or assisting in refueling or other duties, they could sleep. Both attempted to establish a pattern where they could include various forms of exercise each day but boredom and lack of sleep quickly took over. Night flying was difficult because there were few lights to navigate by. On the morning of January 9, 1959, Bob found that he had fallen asleep while flying the aircraft. Cook described the incident in his log. “…it was 2:55 AM and he (Timm) was fighting sleeplessness. On auto pilot fell asleep 4000 FT over Blythe Airport found himself ½ way to Yuma Ariz 4000 ft. Very lucky. We must sleep more in the day time.”
This incident was shortly followed by the loss of their heater generator. Since it was January, they had to wrap themselves in blankets to stay warm. Cook wrote in his log “Hard to stay awake in dark place – can’t use radio – can’t use electric fuel pump. Pump all gasoline by hand, using minimum lights….Don’t realize how necessary this power until all of a sudden – sitting in the dark – no lights in panel to fly by – flashlight burning out – can’t see to fix the trouble if you could fix at all.”
When Timm and Cook landed on February 7, 1959, they had flown 150,000 miles, a distance equal to six times around the earth with no accidents. The total time elapsed was 64 days, 22 hours, 19 minutes, and 5 seconds, a record that still stands today . Their aircraft, N9172B can be seen today hanging above the baggage claim area of McCarran Airport in Las Vegas.
Both men died in Las Vegas, Robert on July 3, 1976 and John on October 25, 1995..