The early aviators who passed through Montana dreamed and crashed and dreamed some more. They flew without knowing just how big an engine it took to fly at the state's higher elevations, or just how treacherous Montana's crosswinds could be. Twice during Helena's fair, Mars attempted to cross the Continental Divide. On the second try, he hit a downdraft and sank 2,000 feet in two minutes. "Just short of going through the pass, the propeller hit a boulder, throwing Mars from the machine and damaging the tail of the aircraft beyond repair," Wiley wrote.
Some of those early aviators died young. In 1911, Cromwell Dixon, an Ohio teenager, was the first to fly across the Continental Divide, from the Helena fairgrounds to the tiny community of Blossburg. He died two days later at the age of 19, during an exhibition flight at the Spokane, Wash., state fair.
While most of those early pilots were simply passing through the state on exhibition tours, a few aviators, such as Terah T. Maroney, were more or less homegrown pilots. Maroney was a cabinet maker who came to Butte in 1908 and later moved to Great Falls. He made his first flight, a hop of 300 feet, in July of 1911 in Great Falls. He flew a second home-built plane, before he decided he could afford flying lessons in San Diego.
In 1912, at Montana's first air meet in Butte, Maroney made what was then billed as the state's longest flight, to Gregson Hot Springs and back, a non-stop flight of 43 minutes. Dr. Frank Bell, a dentist who was the first Billings resident to own and fly a plane, wowed spectators during a Memorial Day celebration in 1913. Walter Beck, from Missoula, was a self-taught pilot, chauffeur, and road race driver. In 1911, on the flats south of Missoula, Beck became proficient in taxiing an airplane. But, when he attempted to take off, the under-powered plane failed to clear some telephone wires. He continued flying, and by 1913 he was doing exhibition and cross-country flights in a plane with a higher-powered 50 horsepower motor.
A few of those daredevils were women. Exhibition flier Katherine Stinson, a petite, Alabama-born brunette who weighed 101 pounds, was the fourth woman in the United States to receive a pilot's license. Stinson, known on the exhibition circuit as the "Flying Schoolgirl," received the license in 1912 at the age of 21.
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