Cromwell Dixon
A Boy and His Plane

by Martin J. Kidston

foreword by Jeff Berry,
great-nephew of Cromwell Dixon

  • Hailed as a mechanical genius in 1907 at the age of 13, teenage inventor Cromwell Dixon built and flew airships in Ohio before signing on with the famous Glenn Curtiss in New York and flying the world's first airplanes.

    At age 19, Dixon became the first pilot in history to fly over the Continental Divide. He made the landmark flight from Helena, Montana, in 1911 before a sudden crash took his life two days later in Spokane, Washington.

    In a richly detailed foreword, Jeff Berry, great-nephew of Cromwell Dixon, reveals family stories about Dixon, including how he built his own roller coaster, two motor-driven bicycles, and, at the age of 15, a pedal-powered airship known as the Skycycle. Berry also shares never-before-seen Dixon family photographs.

    Like the tale of Icarus, Dixon's story is one of great daring, accomplishment, and tragedy.

168 pages, 6 x 9, 40 b/w photos, index, appendix, 56 softcovers per case, perfect-bound

ISBN 10: 1-56037-473-X
ISBN 13: 978-1-56037-473-2

September 2007

  • featured on the History Detectives on PBS, 2010
  • author signings and promotional events scheduled for 2008 to 2011 to coincide with the 100th Anniversary of Cromwell's achievements and his historic flight
  • foreword by Cromwell Dixon's great-nephew
  • features 40 historical images, as well as never-before-seen Dixon family photographs

  • View PBS's lesson plan for teaching kids 6-12 about this remarkable figure in American history: click here to visit PBS's lesson plan.
From Poplar to Papua: Montana's 163rd Infantry in World War II





Cromwell Dixon
A Boy and His Plane
Features foreword
by Dixon's great-nephew
and never-before-seen family photos.

The cold wind blew against his face, and his shoulders grew stiff. But Cromwell Dixon shook off the nagging discomfort and continued aiming his aeroplane toward the glow of the bonfire straight ahead. Keep flying toward that fire, he told himself, leaning left and right, balancing the craft in the choppy currents of air. Just aim for the smoke.
The wafting black cloud of smoke curled, ghostlike, off the ridge of the Continental Divide. The fire was a beacon guiding him in, and the smoke, lifting from the flames, danced close to the clouds-those wispy white puffs moving just out of reach, like the periphery of a dream.
His knuckles gripped the wheel tightly, whitening inside his thick black gloves. His eyes widened as he peered, unblinking, through his aviation goggles. There was so much to see, flying so high. The ground below rose up sharply, and the pointed tips of the pines reached for his wheels, which hung below the craft like the dangling legs of a mosquito. And then the earth fell steeply away into dark-green gullies, crisscrossed with animal trails.
You're almost there, he told himself. Ten minutes of flying. Ten minutes since he left the fairgrounds back in Helena. Ten minutes since the plaudits of thousands-men and women dressed in the finest clothes 1911 had to offer-sent him soaring into the wide Montana sky. Well-wishers and dreamers, the kindliest people he'd ever met. Such a refreshing change from the skeptics he'd encountered during his travels west. Remember the ones who laughed when you said you'd fly, he reminded himself. Flyboy. Birdman. It's not what they call you. It's what you answer to.
The smoke grew darker. Fly to it, he thought, urging the wavering machine forward. He aimed for the smoke, looking to pass through it.
His aeroplane, the Little Hummingbird, was made of spruce and metal, and was born from a dream as old as man himself. Flying overhead, an aeroplane defied logic. What made it fly, anyway? Never mind, he thought. It flew. That was enough.
The wind whistled through the wires and struts. The engine roared, the radiator drinking in the high Montana air. The drone of the propeller spinning behind him was a steady, monotonous sound, tedious and even. Cromwell's cap of wool and leather resisted the chill, though his fingers grew numb, his cheeks burned.
Erratic mountain currents tossed the Little Hummingbird on an uneven keel. Hold on tight, he told himself, gritting his teeth. You're almost there. Find something to distract your thoughts.
He saw his sister Lulu smiling, her pretty face wrapped in bobbing blonde curls. He pictured his mother, Annie, waiting for word of his impossible journey, her fingers crossed, her eyes sparkling with wonder and concern. If only they were here to see this, to savor the splendor of this moment. Lulu might break out singing "I'm Crazy When the Band Begins to Play," or act out a sketch from "Meet Me Down at the Corner." His mother would smile, shake her head softly, and say she was proud.
No man had ever crossed the Rocky Mountains by air. No man had ever taken an aeroplane across the crown of the continent-that forest-green jewel that cracks the raindrops into halves and sends them off to separate corners of the world.
Five minutes to go, Cromwell thought, looking to the mountaintop ahead, trying to estimate its distance. The propeller purred and the engine droned, guzzling down the fuel in the tank. Don't look away, Cromwell thought. Keep flying toward that fire.

Martin J. Kidston align= Martin Kidston graduated from the University of Montana-Missoula in 1997 after serving in the Marines. He works as a reporter for Lee Newspapers and is also a freelance writer. Kidston is the author of From Poplar to Papua: Montana's 163rd Infantry Regiment in WWII, and coauthor, with Barbara Fifer, of Wanted! Wanted Posters of the Old West.

Praise for Cromwell Dixon: A Boy and His Plane

"The amazing young flyer Cromwell Dixon comes wonderfully to life in Martin Kidston's impassioned and meticulous account of Dixon's brief career. A terrific read."
-Deirdre McNamer, author of Red Rover and Rima in the Weeds and professor of creative writing, University of Montana-Missoula

"Cromwell Dixon was a boy aviator in name only; he was mature beyond his years. He saw America, and Montana, from a rare vantage point high in his aeroplane. Cromwell participated in the shaping of aviation's beginnings, when all flying was stunt flying; he tested himself and his plane to tragic limits. Kidston explores with sensitivity and creativity the fast-paced life of a forgotten hero."
-Richard Sims, director of the Montana Historical Society in Helena, Montana

"The aviator-s brief existence is explained to the reader with sensitivity, ingenuity, and compassion."
-Brian D'Ambrosio, New West

"Cromwell Dixon's tragically short life story is a tale of pure courage and skill that biographer Kidston handles with fondness, empathy, and a historian's reverence for detail."
-Tom Harpole, Smithsonian Air and Space magazine

"The book is an educational, but not stuffy, look at turn-of-the-20th-century life in America with details about clothing, transportation (remember, the auto was in its infancy, too) and the amazing, rapid-fire changes that affected society and government, along with individuals. It reads like a novel while packed with facts."
Billings Gazette

Cromwell Dixon Timeline:

  • July 9, 1892: Cromwell Dixon is born in Columbus, Ohio.
  • As a boy, Cromwell Dixon builds his own roller coaster and charges the neighborhood children a penny a ride.
  • 1903: Dixon invents a motor-driven bicycle, just two years after the first commercial production of motorcycles by the Indian Motorcycle Company in 1901.
  • December 17, 1903: Orville and Wilbur Wright achieve the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk.
  • May 1907: Cromwell Dixon flies the Skycycle, a small dirigible that he built, powered by a bicycle and propeller at the Columbus Driving Park.
  • October 22, 1907: Dixon flies the Skycycle from the Aero Grounds in St. Louis, Missouri, and is blown across the Mississippi River.
  • 1911: Dixon is in the 1911 class of the Curtiss Aeroplane Company's aviation school.
  • July 9, 1911: Cromwell Dixon is issued a pilot's license from the Aero Club of America, License Number 43.
  • August 1911: Cromwell Dixon flies for the Grand Island Merchants' Association in Grand Island, Nebraska.
  • September 1911: Cromwell Dixon appears in Helena, Montana, to perform aerial feats in his Curtiss pusher, Little Hummingbird, for the Montana State Fair.
  • September 30, 1911: Cromwell Dixon is the first pilot to cross the Continental Divide.
  • October 2, 1911: Cromwell Dixon is killed when his aeroplane crashes during an exhibition flight at the Washington Interstate Fair in Spokane.

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