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Context: As a private pilot, I enjoy preparing my flights with a mix of paper charts and iPad apps. In flight, my navigation is now often very assisted by the G1000 or iPad, relegating the paper maps to backup. But I remember that, when I was only using paper maps during training, the workload could quickly rise and that I was sometimes exhausted after a short navigation because of that.


What are the longest (either by time or distance) known flights ever flown without any "modern" navigation system ?

I'm interested by flights that comply to the following criteria:

  • Did not use any GPS or inertial navigation system (maps and stars are ok)
  • Radio navigation is ok (but bonus point if the aircraft is not equipped for that)
  • Have only one leg
  • Take off and landing fields can be the same if the flight was long enough to require actual navigation (recon missions, circumnavigation...)
  • Can be historical stories (war heroes, military experiment, pioneers...) as well as modern ones (record attempts...)
  • May have a flight crew as large as Pilot + Co-Pilot + Navigator + Engineer, but...
  • ...don't have any rest period for the crew (no backup crew on board)
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    $\begingroup$ Would Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic count? 1927, no GPS, only one leg, no rest period. $\endgroup$ – Dan Pichelman May 24 at 14:06
  • $\begingroup$ Yes of course, this is exactly the kind of stories I'm looking for. Maybe there are some other that are worth looking at out there :) $\endgroup$ – Quentin H May 24 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ Lindbergh crossed the southern tip of Ireland only about 2-3 miles off track on pure dead reckoning. That was after flying a great circle route that had several heading changes, hallucinating during the overnight phase, and eventually repeatedly falling asleep and catching himself drifting into a spiral this way or that then estimating a correction. At the start of the second night when he arrived over Paris he realized he had enough fuel to continue to Rome, and mulled it over before deciding that would be pushing it too much. $\endgroup$ – John K May 24 at 15:59
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This list of flight endurance record on Wikipedia lists as number 3 an endurance record of 84 hours 32 minutes between May 25th and 28th 1931. It seems reasonable to assume that no modern navigation means were used in 1931. However, the flight was mostly local, so navigation was not really required.

The all time record is from Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager in 1986. The Rutan Voyager had state-of-the-art navigation on board, including an Omega Navigation System and a GPS receiver. The latter was only functioning for approximately 4 hours per day, because the GPS constellation was not yet complete and many satellites were missing.

The Double Sunrise flights seem to qualify, with times in the air between 27 and 33 hours.

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  • $\begingroup$ Most of the flights on the wikipedia list seems to be "local" and required little to no actual "navigation". But the 1986 story sounds interesting. I'll try to figure out if they had a GPS. $\endgroup$ – Quentin H May 24 at 14:14
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    $\begingroup$ @QuentinHayot They had GPS, but it was only working 4 hours per day. And it wasn't anything like a G1000 or an iPad $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima May 24 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ Just saw your edit about the navigation systems on board. Still an impressive performance! $\endgroup$ – Quentin H May 24 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ There is a good point in that if you're only trying to stay in the air as long as possible, you just fly in circles around the airport. No issues with airspace clearance or traffic, no navigation necessary, easy communication with ground support, you can land at the last possible moment, you start somewhere where you know there's going to be good weather... $\endgroup$ – user71659 May 25 at 23:58
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While a slightly shorter distance than the Rutan Voyager, in 1949 the Lucky Lady II did the first nonstop circumnavigation (using air-to-air refueling). Flight time was 94 hours 1 minute, and a distance of 23,452 mi (37,742 km). Looks like it predates any airplane use of Inertial navigation systems.

Unfortunately this flight had multiple pilots on board, and so fails the "backup crew" rule, but I think is still worth mentioning.

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  • $\begingroup$ I love this! Even with the backup crew it must have been a pretty hard flight! The picture of refueling on the Wikipedia page is insane. $\endgroup$ – Quentin H May 24 at 22:03
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The first thing that came to my mind was the Pan Am Clipper flights, especially those operating about the Pacific / China. https://www.clipperflyingboats.com/transpacific-airline-service

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