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This 1956 Ford Thunderbird Was Used to Ressuply Plane That Spent Two Months in the Air

1956 Ford Thunderbird 15 photos
Photo: Mecum
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Most of us quickly get all worked up at the news of some aircraft being capable of spending a long time in the air. After all, who doesn't like a machine that can be pushed to its limits and not break? But did you know the world record for the longest continuous flight belongs to a plane that spent more than two months in the air without interruption?
Back in late December 1958, at a time when aviation was still igniting people's imagination, a daring crew comprising pilots Robert Timm and John Cook took a Cessna 172 Skyhawk aircraft to the air in the Las Vegas area.

Their goal was to set the record for the longest-duration continuous flight in an airplane, and that's exactly what they did: the crew and their machine spent 64 days, 22 hours and 19 minutes up there, achieving something nobody managed to achieve again since (the runner up-crew, also in a Cessna 172, clocked a little over 50 hours).

That sounds amazing, but how did a crew of two manage to keep an airplane in the air for so long? We'll start with the plane.

The Cessna 172 was introduced in 1956, and it is technically still being made, after more than 44,000 units already rolled off the lines. It is powered by a Lycoming engine and can technically fly for as much as 800 miles (1,289 km) on a single full of fuel.

Yet during its record-setting flight, the machine, nicknamed Hacienda, covered a total of 150,000 miles (241,000 km), circling over the Nevada desert. And it was capable of doing that because it had help from the ground, and came with an extra fuel tank.

1956 Ford Thunderbird
Photo: Mecum
That help from the ground came in the form of support trucks and cars used to send up both fuel for the plane and supplies for the crew, which took turns sleeping on a mattress and used a foldable camp toilet for, well, you know.

One of the cars that helped the Cessna stay aloft for so long is this here 1956 Ford Thunderbird. We stumbled upon it on the lot of cars auction house Mecum is selling at the end of the week at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis, and couldn't resist the temptation to bring it before you.

The Ford has spent its entire existence around airplanes. It was originally owned by the people who also owned the Alamo Field, the present-day McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

It was used from day one as an aircraft support vehicle, something Ford probably never imagined its luxury car would ever do. That means it moved fast across the runway, taking supplies and other useful pieces of equipment to parked aircraft.

During the record-setting Cessna flight, the car was used to resupply the plane. The pilots brought the aircraft as low as they could, to around 20 feet (six meters) and, using a winch, lowered a hook that snatched a refueling hose attached to a truck.

Occasionally, though, the Thunderbird was deployed to send up five-gallon (19-liter) canisters of fuel using a rope. The same method was used to deliver supplies to the crew, but also to bring down the waste that would have otherwise engulfed the Cessna.

1956 Ford Thunderbird
Photo: Mecum
Several years after it helped the Cessna set the record, in 1967, the Thunderbird was sold to the Hughes Tool Company, owned by other than aerospace daredevil Howard Hughes. It then passed over to Hughes' personal pilot, and from there, it moved into various private collections.

At one point in the past, the Thunderbird was restored, and that explains the incredible condition it presents itself in now.

The car is selling with the 312ci engine tucked under the bodywork and running an automatic transmission. The odometer reads close to 42,500 miles (68,400 km) of use, most of them traveled on runways and in the desert.

The Thunderbird is fully loaded and comes with power everything (steering, brakes, seats, windows), two roofs (a porthole hardtop and a white soft top), and beautiful wire wheels.

To make sure everybody understands just how important this particular vehicle is in the history of American aviation, the seller is letting it go complete with original photographs of it in action. Its service with the Hughes Tool Company is documented with a property tag visible on the firewall.

The 1956 Ford Thunderbird that chased a Cessna across the Nevada desert is listed by Mecum with a minimum price of $90,000, but when the hammer falls on the car on May 17, the bidding might easily take that price to as much as $110,000.

We will keep an eye out for this car to learn how it performs in Indianapolis and update this story as soon as we know for how much (and if) it eventually sells.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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