Cromwell Dixon


Pen, paper, computer, Internet, Detective Technique Guide: Conducting Historical Research

Related Episode

A woman discovers that a swatch of fabric she inherited from her grandfather is actually wing material from an airplane flown by the “Boy Genius” pilot Cromwell Dixon, the first man to fly across the Continental Divide at age 19.

Cromwell Dixon Plane Fragment

What could this fabric tell us about the first pilot to conquer the Continental Divide?

Estimated Time Required

2-3 class periods





In this lesson, students learn about key figures of aviation history and create timelines about their accomplishments. They then debate the dangers and value of taking risks at a young age by researching contemporary teenage explorers.


Before Viewing

Tell students that they are going to be making model paper airplanes and participating in a mock air show. Divide them into groups of three or four and provide them with a menu of airplane models that you can select from this website which has instructions for models that range from easy to difficult, including several gliders. (You might wish set up tables around the room with names of airplane models, difficulty level, and a few sets of printed instructions, and have each group pick the one that is most appealing. Or, if Internet access is available, once students have selected a model, you can direct them to the directions online.)

Give each group 15-20 minutes to build and test their airplanes, then set aside time for a brief mock air show where each group flies their plane to see the farthest distance it can travel. Then, devote some time to discussing the performance of each model and invite students to talk about the challenges of building the airplanes as well as “flying” them.

Tell students that “much like car or boat shows today, air shows served as a platform for displaying the newest flying machines to the public.” Invite them to try and imagine what that meant for “exhibition fliers,” the pilots who flew planes in these shows and exhibition fliers. What were the risks? What type of person might want to participate? Vet student’s background knowledge about early aviation history if time permits.

Finally, tell students they are going to watch an episode of History Detectives which is about a little known figure of early aviation history who just happened to be a teenager.



In September 2009, a group of seventh grade students in Helena, Montana approached the Lewis and Clark County Commission to propose that Sept. 30 be officially declared Cromwell Dixon Day. Their request was granted and in 2011, this event will be celebrated on a large scale as it will coincide with the 100th anniversary of Dixon’s flight across the Continental Divide.

After students have watched the History Detectives episode, Cromwell Dixon Plane Fragment, share the information about Cromwell Dixon Day with them and tell them that they are going to be researching key figures of aviation history so that they can better understand the context in which Dixon lived (and died).

The article Aviation Pioneers published by the National Parks Service provides a concise history of early aviation figures. Have students read the article while highlighting and creating a list of key “characters” in aviation history. Then, ask each student to select and research an aviation pioneer from the list using the Detective Technique Guides Going Back in Time: How to Conduct Historical Research and Who Knows Best: How to Find an Expert.

Have students research create timelines about the aviation accomplishments in the life of their pioneer. If your students have access to the Internet, invite them to include multimedia such as photographs, Youtube videos, maps, and audio in their timelines and to create them using a site such as,,, or If students are interested in creating parallel timelines (see a simple example), you might suggest they use the dMarie Time Capsule to facilitate their research. It provides information about world events between 1800 and 2002.

Display students’ timelines in the classroom or post them on a classroom website using Google Sites or a blogging application such as or

Ask students to reflect on their timelines. What did they learn about aviation history that they did not know before? What is the significance of Cromwell Dixon in light of the other aviation pioneers? What qualities do these aviation pioneers, including Cromwell Dixon, have in common?


Going Further

Ask students to write a position paper on the question: How young is too young? Should a 13-year-old be allowed to climb Mount Everest or sail around the world? Is it irresponsible? Too dangerous? Or, a worthy demonstration of skill and expertise?

They should use the following sources as starting points:

They might also wish to research the following teenage explorers (or one of their choosing who is mentioned in the above sources):

  • Abby Sunderland, 16 — recently on a quest to be the youngest to person to circumnavigate the world in a sailboat
  • Jessica Watson, 18 — the youngest person to sail around the world
  • Geordie Stewart, 20 — at 17, he set out to climb the highest peak on each continent
  • Mike Perham, 18 — at 17, he became the youngest person to complete a solo circumnavigation of the globe and at 14, he set the record for crossing the Atlantic
  • Laura Dekker, 14 — courts grounded her bid to sail solo around the world at age 13
  • Hector Turner, 16 — youngest to run the Marathon des Sables, a six-day, 151-mile race across the Sahara desert
  • Rob Gauntlett, 21 — first person to complete a human-powered, pole-to-pole voyage via the Americas in 2007. He died in a climbing accident in January 2009.
  • Rachel Flanders, 19 — youngest person to row across an ocean


Related Resources

Nonfiction Biography: Cromwell Dixon: A Boy & His Plane, 1892–1911 by Martin J. Kidston

DVD: We Saw it Happen

Magazine: Aviation History Archives

Youtube Video: First Flights in Aviation History

News Article: Cromwell Dixon gets his day

Picture Book: Air Show, by Treat Williams (Hyperion, 2010)


From Our Archives: Related History Detectives Lesson Plan

Cardboard History Students create sports cards of sports figures from history.


McRel Standards TK

  • Life Skills, Working with Others, Standard 1: Contributes to the overall effort of a group
  • Science, Standard 10: Understands forces and motion
  • Historical Understanding, Standard 1: Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns
  • Historical Understanding, Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective
  • Language Arts, Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes
  • Language Arts, Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts
  • Technology, Standard 4: Understand the nature of technological design