By BRIAN D’AMBROSIO, For General Aviation News
Cromwell Dixon awoke Oct. 1, 1911, as the talk and toast of the aviation world after the child prodigy turned aviator became the first pilot to fly across the Continental Divide, in his aeroplane “The Little Hummingbird.”
Five days earlier, the Helena Independent declared that the 19-year-old daredevil pilot had given “the greatest exhibition ever seen in the Northwest.” Now, he had truly outdone himself — he was a nationally recognized aviation hero.
Dixon was a true child prodigy. As a boy in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, he built his own roller coaster and charged neighborhood children a penny a ride. In 1903, when he was just 11, he built two motor-driven bicycles, just two years after the first commercial production of motorcycles by the Indian Motorcycle Co. in 1901. His first invention came to him in 1907 when he was just 14 years old. Fascinated by flight, he built the Skycycle, a flying bicycle powered by pedals and a propeller, steered with a rudder connected to the handlebars. Its balloon was cut from a huge silk baggy; similar to contemporary hot air blimps, it was filled with gas, and then fastened to a wooden frame.
After experimenting with the “sky bicycle,” Dixon tackled another kind of flight, joining the 1911 class of the Curtiss Aeroplane Co.’s aviation school. Because he wasn’t old enough to be licensed, he had to convince his mother, Annie Wooten Dixon, to co-sign a contract with the Curtiss company. Reluctant at first, she finally agreed, and on Aug. 31, 1911, he was awarded the 43rd pilot’s license issued in the United States. At 19, he was the youngest licensed aviator in the country — perhaps even the world.
He then went on to become an exhibition pilot, flying at venues around the country.
A confident Dixon pushed the limits of his flying machine — not much more than a shabby wooden box enveloped by chicken wire — and soon, he perfected the “Dixon Corkscrew,” an aerial exercise in which he would circle down from 8,000 feet, pull up, and level off just before landing. Cromwell’s celebrity even caught the attention of President William Howard Taft, who invited the entire Dixon family out to a large dinner the night before an exhibition.
“Daring Aviator Will Attempt Perilous Feat of Mountain Crossing,” trumpeted the headlines in the Helena Independent on Sept. 28, 1911.
The teenager charted his famous flight over the divide thirsting to obtain the $10,000 offered by local executives as compensation to the first aviator to traverse the Continental Divide.
Throngs of people gathered to see the famous boy wonder at the Montana State Fairgrounds in Helena on Sept. 30. One day earlier, he had enthralled much of the same audience with his daring aerial acrobatics.
A crisp, windless autumn morning provided the backdrop as multitudes of fans watched Dixon — determined to prove his talents as a pilot and make a name in aviation circles — twist up to 7,000 feet, and whorl out of sight. He flew west of Helena and landed successfully on the west side of Mullan Pass, in a field. By guiding his fragile Curtiss biplane over the Continental Divide, the Ohio-born teenager made history, becoming the first person to cross the Rocky Mountains.
Following his successful sojourn, he flew back to the fairgrounds where “a greater ovation than ever before given anyone at the fairgrounds was accorded Dixon when he mounted the platform,” the Helena Independent reported. “Governor Norris publicly congratulated Dixon and declared that he was without a peer in the realm of the air. Dixon, as usual, blushed furiously, but the cries of the crowd for a speech went unanswered.”
Unfortunately, on Oct. 2, 1911, just two days after his famous crossing, Dixon was killed when his plane was caught in a downdraft while performing an aerial stunt at the Spokane Interstate Fairgrounds in Washington state. The biplane encountered a strong, unexpected updraft, plunging it toward the ground, crushing the 19-year-old pilot under the heavy engine.
Perhaps the finest hour of Dixon’s life took place just before tragedy struck, when all was certainly possible, and he was invigorated with the excitement of his recent achievements in Montana. In fact, Helena residents have not forgotten about this bright young inventor and precocious pilot who amazed them with a stunt-flying, fast-paced life: A campground on top of MacDonald Pass, near the Continental Divide, was recently named in his honor, while a plaque at the Helena Regional Airport (HLN) commemorates his flight.