ON THIS DATE in 1907, fifteen-year-old Cromwell Dixon took first prize for the flight of his self-constructed “Sky-cycle” at the International Balloon Race of 1907.
Like Elliot’s flying bike in E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, Dixon’s contraption allowed the rider to pedal through the air — with the help of a 25-to-35-foot long (sources differ) gasbag. The balloon-race competition was fierce, however, and no one expected the teenager to triumph against what Martin J. Kidston in Cromwell Dixon: A Boy & His Plane (2007) called “the best of the best.”
The founder of Popular Mechanics described the International Balloon Race, held in St. Louis, as “the greatest event in aeronautics ever seen in this country,” and Dixon provided the biggest thrill by floating his cigar-shaped Sky-cycle to an elevation of 1,200 feet and becoming the first person to cross the Mississippi in a hot-air balloon. He landed eight miles away in Illinois.
Dixon’s triumph made him a celebrity, with newspapers calling him “Air-Boy,” “Bird-Boy,” and “The Boy Balloonist.” Moving on from balloon flight, the inventor-pilot flew airplanes and attained celebrity for the “Dixon Corkscrew,” a stunt in which he plunged straight down from 8,000 feet before leveling off and landing.
In 1911, the nineteen-year-old became the first person to cross the Rocky Mountains in an airplane. Two days later, he crashed and died during an exhibition flight in Spokane, Washington.