Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Early Aviation in Montana

Eugene Ely and Cromwell Dixon celebrated aviation firsts in Montana in 1911, and ironically, both young pilots met tragic ends soon after. Twenty-five-year-old Ely was already famous as the first pilot to take off and land on a naval ship. The well-known aviator was also the first to fly an airplane in Missoula. On June 28, 1911, he took off and landed at the baseball field at Fort Missoula. He made three successful flights, the third with his mechanic as a passenger. It was the first dual flight in Montana. His Curtiss Pusher airplane arrived at the Missoula depot by train after similar flights in Butte, Great Falls, Kalispell, and Lewistown. To transport excited spectators to the fort for the event, both the railroad from the Bitterroot Valley and the Missoula streetcar line added extra cars. Over three thousand people witnessed the flight. On October 18, 1911, at the Georgia State Fair in Macon, Georgia, Ely died after jumping from his plane as it crashed. In Helena, Cromwell Dixon made headlines that same year. On September 30, spectators watched him take off from the fairgrounds and land on the west side of Mullan Pass, becoming the first aviator to cross the Continental Divide.

Cromwell Dixon at the controls of his plane, the Hummingbird, after crossing the Continental Divide.
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 941-849
Days later on October 2, Dixon died when his plane crashed at the state fair at Spokane, Washington. Both pilots died within two weeks of each other, having made aviation history in Montana.

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