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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. $\endgroup$ May 24 '19 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 '19 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 '19 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ If not distance but duration is important, certainly airship flights should lead the list. $\endgroup$ Jun 19 at 5:50
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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 '19 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 '19 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ Just saw your edit about the navigation systems on board. Still an impressive performance! $\endgroup$
    – Quentin H
    May 24 '19 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 '19 at 23:58
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Don't Forget the flights over the poles:

May 9, 1926 - Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett in Fokker tri-motor made first flight over North Pole from Spitsbergen Island and back, a distance of 1,535 miles miles in 15 hours, 44 minutes. There is some question whether they reached the pole because the flight took 3 hours less than expected for the distance.

Nov. 28-29, 1929 — Comdr. Richard E. Byrd, Bernt Balchen, Harold June, and Capt. Ashley McKinley in Ford tri-motor monoplane Floyd Bennett make first flight over South Pole, 1,600 miles, from Little America over pole and back, in 18 hours, 59 minutes.

Just a month after the Lindbergh flight:

June 28, 1927: The first non-stop flight between the United States and Hawaii is made by U.S. Lts. Albert F. Hegenberger and Lester J. Maitland. They fly 2,407 miles (3,874 km) from Oakland to Honolulu in 25 hours, 30 minutes.

Although shorter and not solo, this flight was noteworthy for several reasons: They flew east to west, which meant flying against the prevailing winds. Their target were islands in the middle of the Pacific - not a huge landmass. This opened up the Pacific for commercial aviation.

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  • $\begingroup$ and years later it put hegenberger's name on the approach road from Hiway 17 in oakland to the oakland airport terminal. $\endgroup$ Jun 19 at 4:31
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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 '19 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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