HELENA — Planes flying across the mountains is a common sight now, but that has not always been the case. The first flight across the Continental Divide took off from Helena on Sept. 30, 1911. The pilot was 19-year-old Cromwell Dixon.
At the time of Dixon’s flight, planes were a novelty.
“These guys were strapped into basically a kitchen chair in a rickety old plane, with a propeller behind them and an engine in front of them,” Martin Kidston said. “You can just imagine what that would be like.”
Kidston wrote “Cromwell Dixon: A Boy and his Plane,” which details the life and flights of the young pilot.
According to an article in the 2009 Autumn edition of “Montana: The Magazine of Western History”, Dixon was hired on to the Curtiss Exhibition Company, which was a group of aviators that traveled and performed in air shows across the country.
Dixon ended up in Montana to perform in shows, first in Missoula, then in Helena.
Flying in the early 1900s was not safe.
“The pressure was on them to fly faster and farther, and do more and more dangerous tricks, because that’s what the crowd came to want,” Kidston said. “It cost many of these gentlemen their life.”
A New York Times article from Oct. 1, 1911 said Dixon’s historic flight across the Continental Divide took off from the Lewis and Clark Fairgrounds at 2:08 pm on Sept. 30, 1911. He flew about 17 miles and landed at Blossberg at 2:34 pm.
While that might not sound like much today, it was a huge feat at the time.
“A lot of people flew in the midwest where the ground was flat and the air was relatively stable on a sunny day,” Kidston said. “As we all know here in the Rocky Mountains, the air can be rather turbulent at times, and unpredictably so. So, it proved that airplanes could fly at elevation and also at times in rough turbulence.”
Dixon’s flight in Helena was one of his last. He died on Oct. 2, 1911, when his plane crashed in Spokane.
You can still find Dixon’s name in the Helena area—Cromwell Dixon Campground sits atop the Continental Divide, and Cromwell Dixon Lane is just west of the Helena Regional Airport—but otherwise, Kidston said Dixon’s legacy has largely been forgotten.
“He was part of the evolution of flight here in the United States, and I think he kind of deserves a little bit of credit for that,” Kidston said.