A Teenage Aviator

Cromwell Dixon wows the crowds at Squantum

By John Galluzzo

Up until September of 1910, Squantum was a quiet seaside village of modest homes in the city of Quincy. That all changed when an aero meet was held that attracted international visitors, designers and aircraft pilots from around the world to compete for money, trophies and prestige. Similar events were held in 1911 and 1912. Squantum was changed by these events, and after, aircraft manufacturers began using the field for testing and the U.S. Navy established Naval Air Station Squantum.

The Victory Destroyer Plant occupied a section of the northeastern shore of the peninsula during World War I, turning out its first ships just days after the war ended. In later years, the land underwent one more transition—becoming a home of high-end living, dining and nightlife—at what is now known as Marina Bay. The sleepy farming days of the 19th century faded into oblivion the moment the Harvard Aeronautical Society signed the papers to start building the airfield.

The Harvard-Boston Aero Meets featured a variety of individual contests including speed over distance races, altitude, takeoff and landing distances, simulated bombing on a battleship outline on the field, rifle firing on ground targets and even flights around Boston Lighthouse. Among the entrants in the contests was Cromwell Dixon of Columbus, Ohio.

The 18-year-old Dixon competed for the $5,000 prize by flying his powered dirigible from the aero meet airfield into Boston, around the Massachusetts State House’s golden dome and back to Squantum. Dixon’s first flight in his invention had been over Dayton, Ohio, on July 9, 1909, which was also his 17th birthday.

The young man had been an inventor from as far back as his mother could remember. As a child, he built a roller coaster for his neighborhood pals, and in 1903 he designed and built his own motorcycle. He wowed crowds with his human-powered dirigible—what he called his “Sky Cycle”—in the 1907 International Balloon Race, crossing the Mississippi River by air. Shortly after that event, he issued stocks to help defray the cost of building the powered version of the dirigible he would later fly at Squantum.

On Sunday, September 4, 1910, Dixon broke the cardinal rule of the contest by flying on Sunday. He had been having trouble with his machine and was desperate to get it airborne, so, without crowds gathered, he tugged his balloon out of the hangar and began his ascent. He reached 100 feet before “it was obvious that both pilot and craft were fated for a long drift out over the waters of the harbor unless something was done immediately to alter the course of the runaway dirigible,” reported the Boston Globe. An engine had failed and the southwest winds began carrying him toward Dorchester Bay.

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Quincy’s Squantum neighborhood was the home base for the teenage, star aviator, Cromwell Dixon.

The many mechanics on hand for the event shouted instructions from the ground, but Dixon calmly tried several fixes before releasing the gas from the bag. He began to drift back toward the field, shouting to boatmen on the Neponset River below him to be ready to pick him up should he make a water landing, but he cleared the river and headed for the field. Unfortunately, he headed straight for the hangars and, fearful of hitting them, he closed up the gas valve and began his ascent once again. Swinging around to the northern end of the field, he shouted to the mechanics now running around the field after him to be ready to catch the drag rope, but when he threw it overboard it snagged on the machine and entangled itself. Nimbly climbing all over his contraption, Dixon dislodged it and tossed it free.

“’Whew!’ exclaimed the nervy young man as he hopped to the ground,” said the Globe, “and that one word expressed the feelings of the others fittingly.” Once the dirigible was back in its tent and the “gasmaking plant” was back in operation refilling the balloon, Dixon moved among the mechanics seeking assistance in making his motor work properly once again.

Four days later, Dixon set out in grand style at 5:52 p.m. for Boston. Bostonians rushed to prime viewing spots to catch sight of him. Unfortunately, Dixon mistook the golden dome of the Christian Scientist Mother Church for the State House and landed in an empty lot rather than Boston Common, as planned. He announced to crowds of cheering people who quickly gathered that he would be returning to Squantum by moonlight, but his mother said no. She had followed his ride by chauffeured automobile, with a policeman riding shotgun. In the mad dash to catch up with him, the driver rear-ended another car and his own car ended up in a marsh. With nothing more than a few scratches to the car, the group pulled it out and continued the chase. Because he missed the State House, Dixon did not collect the prize money. For him, the first Harvard air meet was over.

In 1911, Dixon switched to heavier-than-air craft, receiving pilot license number 43, and on September 30 he became the first person to fly across the Continental Divide. But, like many early aviators, his luck soon ran out. Dixon died two days later, on October 2, when his plane was caught in a downwind in Spokane, Washington, and crashed from 100 feet. Dixon survived another hour, but passed away in a hospital at just 19 years old.

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