Warren “Doc” Bayley was a man of the people. When he and his wife Judy opened their Las Vegas resort in 1956, Bayley had no plans to compete with the flashier, corporate casinos at the center of the Strip. Instead, the Hacienda Hotel catered to families, as well as to locals who wanted a night out minus the tourists. When connoisseurs sneered, “You can either go to Las Vegas or to the Hacienda,” Bayley embraced the distinction with pride, and he didn’t even mind when the nickname “Hayseed Heaven” took hold. Hayseeds were hard-working folks who deserved a vacation, too, and his steady bookings proved it.
But margins were low, and Bayley was always on the lookout for new ways to drum up publicity for his so-called “low roller” operation. He didn’t care where the ideas came from. Staff at the Hacienda were considered family, and Bayley regularly asked the advice of maids, bellboys, cooks, and anyone else who might have something useful to offer. So when a slot machine mechanic and former Army pilot named Bob Timm suggested breaking a world record—specifically, the world record for the longest endurance flight in a piloted plane—Bayley was willing to listen.
Ever since the Wright brothers first measured their airtime in seconds, pilots and mechanics have tried to stretch the limits of how long a plane could remain in the sky. Prior to 1923, their efforts were dictated almost entirely by the size of the fuel tank, but in June of that year, the U.S. Army conducted its first mid-air refueling maneuver between two Airco DH-4B biplanes. The combat applications were significant, but the endurance flight community saw an entirely different battle won that day: if a plane could refuel once, it could potentially do so forever. Almost immediately, the existing endurance flight record was broken by a DH-4B that refueled nine times in a row for an unheard-of 37 hours of flight time—and almost immediately, that record was broken again. In 1929 alone, the record was broken and reset five times. America had endurance flight fever, and if the pace of record-breaking had slowed somewhat by the time Bob Timm set his sights on it in 1957, that was only because they were starting to reach human, rather than mechanical, limits.
As an experienced pilot who had flown bombers in World War II, Timm understood the emotional draw of such challenges. But more relevantly, at least to Doc Bayley, endurance flights had been used for publicity before. The current record-holders were a pair of former Navy pilots who had flown an Aeronca Sedan for 46 days straight in 1949, to raise support for reopening the Yuma Army Airfield—and it had worked. Pictures of their plane, which they’d named “City of Yuma,” appeared in countless newspapers with their slogan, “The City with a Future,” painted prominently on its side.
Sin City, on the other hand, didn’t have the wholesome reputation of a small town trying to rejuvenate its economy, and Bayley feared that the attention-grabbing antics of a casino could never garner the same level of journalistic goodwill. So he struck a deal with Bob Timm: he would commit up to $100,000 (equivalent to about $1 million in 2021 dollars) toward the endurance flight project—including the cost of the plane, support staff, equipment, and salaries for both Timm and a co-pilot—but officially, the event would be a fundraiser for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. Supporters could send in a donation along with a guess as to how long the Hacienda-emblazoned plane would stay in the air, and the closest entry would win $10,000. The “Flight Against Cancer” would be, in essence, a form of family-friendly gambling—exactly the sort of thing Bayley wanted to promote—while neatly sheltering the Hacienda from accusations of self-interest.
Timm’s first visit was to the McCarran Field municipal airport, where flight lessons and other private aircraft services were offered by Alamo Airways (so named because the owner, George Crockett, was a direct descendant of the famous Davy). There, Timm purchased a Cessna 172 and hired a mechanic named Irv Kuenzi to modify the plane for endurance flight. They started by removing the co-pilot’s seat—Timm would certainly need a partner if he were going to stay in the sky for more than a month, but they would be flying in shifts, with one man at the controls while the other slept on a 4-inch foam pad where the co-pilot’s chair had been. They also jettisoned the back row bench for a modest 8 square feet of storage, and wedged a tiny metal sink into one corner for the occasional penitent sponge bath in the 4-foot-tall cabin.
Next, Kuenzi installed a 95-gallon “belly tank” to supplement the main fuel tanks in the wings, and a motorized winch with a hook on the end that could be spooled out through the co-pilot’s open door. He removed the co-pilot’s door, and replaced it with a folding accordion panel that would provide easier access to the belly tank’s fuel port—which, while closer than the wings, was still decidedly on the exterior of the aircraft. Though the prospect of clinging to the side of a flying plane might seem like madness today, it was largely unremarkable at the time—tricky, to be sure, but no more dangerous than many other jobs. (For some men, it was the job: by the 1950s, aerial stuntmen had been scaling planes and jumping between them for decades in films such as Sky Eye and The Great Air Robbery, and not even the occasional death could put a stop to the practice. When stunt pilots Ormer Locklear and Skeet Elliott perished on the set of The Skywayman in 1920, the film’s producers used the fatal footage they’d captured in the final cut—and advertised it.) To make the hazardous task of refueling more manageable, Kuenzi installed a small, detachable platform that could be extended outward from the co-pilot’s open door like a porch. This would also be the only location in or out of the plane where the men could stand up straight until the cramped plane returned to terra firma.
Next on the modification list was a “through-firewall” plumbing system, which would allow the oil and filters to be changed with the engine still running. At Timm’s request, Kuenzi also inserted a unique primering apparatus into the combustion chamber of each cylinder. This would enable Timm to periodically inject alcohol into the engine, which he believed would prevent the buildup of carbon—the most likely point of failure on a flight of their intended length. Under normal circumstances, a mechanic would flush out these ashy byproducts of combustion around every 100 hours of operation, but not even the through-firewall plumbing would allow a full chemical wash without a pause in service. Kuenzi disagreed with Timm’s alcohol-injection theory on a number of points, but reluctantly gave the client what he wanted.
Finally, there was the question of the engine itself. The plane Timm purchased, officially known as N9172B, had only logged 450 hours of run time since leaving the factory, but Timm wasn’t taking any chances. He contacted the sales manager at Continental Motors Corp. (CMC), and convinced him that CMC should supply the Hacienda with a new, overpowered engine in exchange for publicity. Everyone would surely want a CMC engine after they used one to break the record, Timm argued. But the sales manager wanted buyers clamoring for an engine off their standard line, not a customized extravagance that they could never mass produce. So he delivered the “special” engine as promised, and Kuenzi only learned years later that the sales manager had simply sent a secretary to choose her favorite off the factory floor, thus elevating it to one-of-a-kind status via feminine taste.
Test flights began in the summer of 1958, but problems abounded—both mechanically and personally. Timm and his initial co-pilot did not get along, and a string of logistical errors and burned exhaust valves did nothing to ease the tension. By October, they had publicly launched and aborted their mission twice, and each failure pushed the men further from glory and closer to each other’s throats in the cramped cabin. Their third and final flight together would prove emblematic of their shortening fuses: around 4:00 in the morning, Timm and his co-pilot accidentally entered military airspace over the Nevada Test Site, just 65 miles north of Las Vegas, and witnessed one of the 37 atomic explosions detonated under Operation Hardtack II. (A few days later, Congress passed a moratorium on above-ground testing, but it’s impossible to say whether the sight of a rogue Cessna silhouetted in the blast played any role in that decision.) The detonation caused no apparent damage to the plane, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that their exhaust valves were burning once again. Timm called off the third attempt, then fired his co-pilot, whose name has been lost to time because Timm never spoke of him again.
Back on the ground, Timm confronted Kuenzi on his perceived incompetence as a mechanic. Not only had their plane failed to stay in the air for more than 17 days, but a different crew had just broken the very record Timm was aiming for. While Kuenzi’s engine had been sputtering over the Nevada desert, two pilots named Jim Heth and Bill Burkhart had flown over Dallas for 50 days—and lest Kuenzi try to blame technology once again, Timm reminded him that Heth and Burkhart’s plane, “The Old Scotchman,” was a Cessna 172. Somehow their exhaust valves were working just fine.
Kuenzi took the abuse with equanimity, and promised that their next attempt would be flawless. He swapped out the “special” CMC engine for the plane’s original used engine, and surreptitiously disconnected Timm’s alcohol-injection system so that any added liquids would dump harmlessly into the lower cowling and evaporate. After that, the plane flew perfectly.
Finally, on 4 December 1958, the “Hacienda,” better known to the control tower by its abbreviated registration, 72 Bravo, took flight once again out of McCarran Field under the watchful eye of record officials representing the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. To preempt accusations of fraud, Timm and his new co-pilot—an Alamo Airways employee named John Wayne Cook—circled back and flew low over the runway so that a chase car could paint white stripes on the tires, which would be destroyed by any clandestine landings. Doc had hired radio personality Preston Foster to chronicle the proceedings and act as ground operations manager, but there was quite a bit less fanfare than he’d been hoping for—this was, after all, their fourth attempt. But word would surely spread, he hoped, as the weeks went on and they came closer to breaking the record.
Just twelve hours later, with the moon shining high overhead, it was time for the first refueling attempt. Timm and Cook maneuvered the plane over a predetermined stretch of abandoned roadway, where a truck with a modified fuel pump awaited them. As the plane came into sight, the driver of the truck floored his accelerator, while the two men in the air reduced their airspeed to a mere 65 miles per hour—any slower, and the Cessna would risk a stall, but a truck in 1958 couldn’t go much faster, certainly not while hauling around 600 pounds of liquid fuel. With both sets of engines operating at their opposite extreme limits, the Hacienda gently lowered to just 20 feet above the road, until the two vehicles were synchronized and the teams could practically see the expressions on each other’s faces. Slowly, they extended the platform, and one man stepped out into winds that would one day be classified as a Category 1 hurricane. Whether this man was Timm or Cook remains a mystery—it seems likely that Timm would have wanted the more difficult job for himself, but both refueler and pilot required intense concentration under such extreme circumstances. A stall at this height, with no airspace to recover before impact, would kill the pilot just as surely as a fall would kill the refueler. Nevertheless, the man tasked with refueling lowered the winch until workmen in the truck could reach out and attach the fuel line to its hook. He then raised it back up, inserted the line into the fuel port, and gave the signal to begin pumping. For three long minutes—and a distance of more than three miles—truck and plane were attached by a fragile, flammable umbilical cord, until the belly tank was satiated. They then lowered the fuel line, and the Hacienda pulled up and away for another twelve hours of flight. If they were going to beat the record, they would need to refuel like this at least 92 more times.
Timm and Cook continued to circle around Las Vegas for a few days to make sure there were no new technical issues, then settled into a broader, southward arc over the uninhabited plains near Blythe, California, where there were fewer commercial flights and atomic explosions to dodge. Though they could achieve better fuel economy at higher altitudes, the air temperature dropped below freezing at around 7,000 feet and the accordion door made for poor insulation, so they generally stayed within clear sight of the ground. This kept the landscape interesting—at least for the first week or so—but beautiful ridges and bluffs could also be deadly obstacles for a low-flying plane, especially under heavy clouds or at night.
Timm and Cook found life aboard the plane quite manageable at first. They enjoyed each other’s company, and passed the time between maintenance duties with comic books, physical exercise, and games like “guess how many cars we will pass in the next hour.” They also took advantage of the twice-daily refueling appointments to replenish their supplies, winching up jugs of water, oil for the engine, fresh towels and soap, and even gourmet meals prepared by the chefs at the Hacienda Hotel, though these had to be cut up and mashed into thermoses to make the trip. As for where those meals eventually ended up, the pair had a folding camp toilet and a collection of plastic bags. When a curator of the Clark County Museum later asked Cook’s widow if they had passed the bags back down during supply exchanges, she replied, “No. That’s why it’s so green around Blythe.”
Unfortunately, because of the many delays and false starts throughout the summer and fall, Timm and Cook’s endurance flight would now cross over the Christmas holidays. Cook had not yet met his future wife and had no one to let down by his absence, but Timm had two sons at home, aged five and six. So the crew rigged up stockings with parachutes, which Timm then filled with candy canes and flew over his own lawn to deliver, waving to the boys below.
As the new year turned over, however, signs of strain began to emerge. The men struggled to sleep on the cramped foam mattress, which was just 4 feet long and surrounded by sharp metal, not to mention the constant roar of the engine. After 36 days in the air, Timm dozed off at the controls one night just minutes before he was due to wake Cook for his shift. An hour later, he opened his eyes to discover that they were flying low through a canyon in unknown territory. “I flew for two hours before I recognized any lights or the cities,” he told a reporter. “I made a vow to myself that I would never tell John what had happened.” But it seems that Cook knew, according to a journal entry he made during the flight:
“…It was 2:55 AM and [Timm] was fighting sleeplessness. On auto pilot fell asleep 4000 ft over Blythe Airport found himself ½ way to Yuma [Arizona]… Very lucky. We must sleep more in the day time.”
As Cook noted, the relatively new Mitchell autopilot system almost certainly saved their lives, though it was little more than a wing-leveler and couldn’t have avoided any direct obstacles in their path. The lesson was delivered not a moment too soon: just a few days later, it stopped working. With more than a week left to go before they broke the record, the two men were on their own.
Frankly, though, they had bigger mechanical issues to worry about by then. On 12 January, day 39, the electrical generator failed. This rendered the radio, lights, and heat inoperable, and also meant that fuel from the belly tank would have to be pumped by hand into the wings. The ground crew passed up a wind-powered generator that they could attach to the outer struts of the plane, but it only provided enough energy for the occasional radio call and one string of Christmas lights. As Cook described it:
“Hard to stay awake in dark place… 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.”
They tried to keep refueling times during daylight hours after that, but with the long winter nights, it proved impossible. On 19 January, they were hit with a double-whammy: a night refueling, and a new moon. According to Cook, it was “as black a night as I have ever seen.” With no exterior lights left on the plane, the refueling truck’s crew could only hear their target, so Cook attached one of their flashlights to the winch’s hook to act as a beacon. Meanwhile, a brightly lit pathfinder truck had to drive 300 feet in front of the refueling vehicle to keep Timm flying on course with the invisible road.
Day by day, the emergencies multiplied. Fuel gauges stopped working. The tachometer went dead. The engine struggled under the accumulating carbon, to the point that it became difficult to climb back into the air with the weight of a full tank of fuel. Other problems were entirely manmade: during one break in their daily chores, Timm lowered the platform and stepped outside to take a sponge bath in the crisp air. Minutes later, Cook realized they were flying straight toward an upcoming ridge, and would need to pull up immediately to avoid a crash—but such an angle change would tilt both Timm and the platform off into oblivion. Cook screamed at his partner to get back inside, and Timm frantically obeyed, yanking the platform in behind him while still completely nude, a toothbrush jutting from his jaw.
As they neared the record-breaking moment on 23 January, the Hacienda finally started to get the kind of publicity Doc Bayley had been hoping for. He scheduled overhead passes of urban areas for each city’s local newspaper, and at one point sent a plane full of photographers up to fly alongside them for a snapshot of Cook standing on the outer struts, cheerfully pretending to clean the windshield.
Even some of their difficulties generated positive coverage: at one point, the fuel truck, which had been specially outfitted and donated by the Cashman Auto dealership in Las Vegas, suffered a temporary breakdown. Since no other vehicles were available with an airplane tank nozzle on a 30-foot hose, a special car with a history all its own was pressed into service. George Crockett had deputized his own fiesta-red Ford Thunderbird convertible as a rather dramatic emergency response vehicle, stocking it with a first aid kit, folding stretcher, spotlights, and two fire extinguishers. Plane crashes were unfortunately common in the 1950s, and while the injured were generally distracted at the time, they often remarked later with wonder at the memory of a top-of-the-line sports car rushing to their aid. Now, the Thunderbird was there to save the day again. Instead of a fuel line, the ground crew loaded the convertible with 5-gallon canisters and passed them up the winch again and again, keeping the Cessna going one sip at a time until the refueling truck could be repaired. (While this was certainly the Thunderbird’s most unusual task, it was not, in the end, its most heroic. That particular rescue came in 1979, when the car’s team raced out into the desert beyond the runway—where the airport’s fire trucks couldn’t easily maneuver—and used its onboard extinguishers to save the lives of 44 passengers in a downed plane. As the assistant manager of the airport told reporters at the time, “There were broken bones, sprained arms and ankles. If the T-Bird hadn’t taken us to the scene, there might possibly have been 44 charred bodies.”)
At 3:52 in the afternoon on 23 January, the Hacienda broke the record set by The Old Scotchman just four months earlier. But after all they’d been through to get this far, Timm and Cook agreed to keep going for as long as they could. They eked out another 14 days, pumping fuel from one tank to another with exhausted arms, wrapping themselves in blankets against the cold each night, and circling the airport tightly in anticipation of a final descent that would by definition come with extremely short notice.
Finally, the engine could take no more, and the weary co-pilots began to worry about their own deteriorating conditions. In the early afternoon on 7 February 1959, aircraft 72 Bravo radioed the tower for a rickety and long overdue landing at McCarran Field. After spending 64 days, 22 hours, 19 minutes, and 5 seconds away from Earth—most of it in a hunched-over or seated position—Timm and Cook had to be physically helped down onto the tarmac, where they were greeted by a cheering crowd of supporters, along with record officials, journalists, Timm’s wife and sons, and numerous Hacienda staff. Cook later noted, “There sure seemed to be a lot of fuss over a flight with one takeoff and one landing.”
Doc Bayley presented them with engraved trophies (he’d had two weeks to prepare for their celebrated arrival, after all), and officials confirmed that the white tire paint had, indeed, been intact during the Cessna’s final approach. There was also the money to celebrate: checks from all over the country were still trickling in, but by the time the flight sputtered to a halt on the runway, donations to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund had surpassed $50,000, or nearly half a million in 2021 dollars. It was a loss on paper, as the Hacienda had spent nearly $100,000 to make the stunt happen, but fundraising had only ever been a means to an end for Doc Bayley—as far as he was concerned, the publicity had been worth it. Timm and Cook’s unbelievable, uncompromising, and frankly unenviable endurance flight remained unsurpassed in the record books for more than 50 years, until the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale stopped recognizing piloted endurance records altogether in 2015 due to safety concerns.
As with most instances of localized fame, life returned to normal surprisingly quickly. Timm spent several months on the PR circuit, appearing on television programs like “To Tell the Truth” and Art Linkletter’s “People are Funny,” but ultimately went back to working at the casino in a newly-formed executive role. Cook, meanwhile, preferred to stay out of the limelight, and continued to fly in relative obscurity as a private pilot for Alamo Airways. Doc Bayley had the 72 Bravo cleaned and restored to working condition, then triumphantly hung it from the ceiling in the Hacienda Hotel lobby for around two years before selling it off to a pilot in Vancouver, Canada. In 1968, George Crockett sold Alamo Airways and the famous Thunderbird to his personal friend, Howard Hughes. After passing through several more owners, the Thunderbird most recently sold for $86,400—stretcher not included—at the 2006 Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction. Bayley continued to run the Hacienda until his death in 1964, after which his wife Judy became the first female casino owner in Las Vegas. Though it was eventually torn down in 1996 to make room for the Mandalay Bay casino, the Hacienda kept its dramatic flair to the very end, with its demolition broadcast live as part of a New Year’s Eve special.
Bob Timm often reminisced about the record-breaking flight as his two sons grew up, and when he passed away suddenly in 1978, Steve Timm decided to find out what had happened to his father’s illustrious plane. He traced its path of sale through nearly every province in Canada until finally locating it on a farm in Saskatchewan, where he purchased it and brought it back to Las Vegas in 1988.
The original Hacienda paint job was reapplied, and with some help from local officials and the Howard Cannon Aviation Museum, N9172B was suspended over the Terminal 1 baggage claim at what is now known as McCarran International Airport. A replica of the red 1956 Ford Thunderbird is also on display. Each year, they remind approximately 47 million travelers of what can be accomplished by a handful of hard-working hayseeds.
An earlier version of this article erroneously said that the Ford Thunderbird was put into service when Alamo Airways was first founded, however it was not acquired until some years later.