Writing about aviation history usually involves a lot of time spent looking for pictures of airplanes. It’s actually my favorite part of the process, since I often come across an image that immediately grabs my attention, either for its historical importance or the way it perfectly illustrates my topic. But sometimes, I am just captivated by a beautiful photograph, like this picture of a Douglas A-20 Havoc in a striking civilian livery. But the historian in me wasn’t satisfied with just a picture of a gorgeous aircraft. I wanted to know about its history, because no photo exists in a vacuum. It has context. It has a story. And every so often, digging into a history leads me down a path I never expected to take. In this case, what started as a desire simply to share a photo of a beautiful aircraft turned into a journey of discovery about not only the airplane, but also about a pilot whose name never made the history books, a pilot who suffered a tragic–and ironic–fate.
First, the photo. While writing for an upcoming Aviation History post about the Havoc, I stumbled across this picture. It shows an airplane originally designed for destroying the enemy in its new life in the civilian world, a retired soldier back home and dressed in mufti. Many warplanes appeared on the racing circuit after WWII, but far fewer made the transition to commercial service like their cargo-carrying counterparts. The photo immediately reminded of this stunning civilian Martin Marauder I discovered some time ago. The airplane geek in me was excited about sharing the photo of the Havoc, but the historian in me wanted to learn everything I could about it.
According to the Warbird Resource Group, this particular A-20 was built in 1944 (US Army Air Forces registration 43-22217), one of nearly 7,500 produced by Douglas and Boeing, though it never saw combat. It ended up being stored at McClellan Field in Sacramento, California before it was ferried to Chino, California for disposal in 1945. The following year it was bought by the Hughes Tool Company for $3,000 (about $38,000 in today’s money, which strikes me as quite a bargain), and Hughes used it to test radio and radar gear, along with the tailplane for the Hughes XF-11 (another fascinating aircraft worth your time to read about). In 1949, it was converted into an executive aircraft, and loaned to pilot Dianna Cyrus Bixby in 1954. In 1955 it was lost in a crash that killed Bixby.
Wait a second. The record made a point of naming the pilot. Now I’m all in. I’ve never heard of Dianna Cyrus Bixby. Who was she? What is her story?
Dianna Bixby (née Converse) grew up in Long Beach, California and was an ardent admirer of Amelia Earhart. Her sense of adventure was no doubt inspired by her grandmother, a merchant sea captain during WWII who also taught navigation to sailors and pilots. In 1943, Dianna married her first husband, John Cyrus, a USAAF bomber pilot, with the stipulation that he teach her to fly. He did. Unfortunately, John was killed in action over France in 1945.
He was flying an A-20 when he died.
To continue her training, Dianna sought out Paul Mantz, a former USAAF pilot who flew in the war and was working in the film industry. He had also been an advisor and tutor to Amelia Earhart. Around this time, Dianna set a speed record for woman pilots while flying a Douglas A-26 Invader named Huntress, and also took part in air races in the hopes of raising money. Because what she really wanted was to fly around the world, the one feat that had eluded Earhart. Using money she earned as a freighter pilot, she purchased a de Havilland Mosquito and, with her second husband, Robert Bixby, also a pilot, she began preparations for the voyage.
Mechanical issues torpedoed her first two attempts, so she and Robert worked to save money to buy a newer plane. Bixby flew for Flying Tigers Air Freight, and became the first woman of her era to command a commercial flight. On her third attempt to fly around the world, this time with her husband, Bixby got as far as Calcutta, India before mechanical issues forced her to abandon the trip. But Bixby vowed to try again the following year.
Needing money for another attempt at the round-the-world flight, Bixby and her husband continued flying freight. She also found work as a pilot in the filming of the pulp science fiction film This Island Earth. But Bixby died before she had the chance to attempt the flight again.
On the day of her death, she was on her way to Mexico to bring fresh vegetables back to California, flying the A-20 shown in the photo. Robert trailed behind in a slower Douglas DC-3. She flew into a storm where her aircraft was pelted with rain, the ceiling was low, and visibility was poor. Low on fuel, Bixby radioed her husband that she was turning towards land to put the plane down. She never made it. Running out of fuel near the coastline, her plane crashed in the ocean. The wreckage was found the next day in 15 feet of water, with Bixby still strapped in the cockpit.
It was ten years to the day that her first husband had died in the war. And, like him, she was flying an A-20.
Prior to one of her attempts to fly around the world, Bixby left a letter for her family in which she quoted Amelia Earhart. It would serve as a poignant epitaph for a woman who was consumed with a passion for flying, one who understood the inherent risks, but also knew how she might serve as an inspiration to others.
“Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”
Source: Soaring Skyward: A History of Aviation in and around Long Beach, California by Claudine Burnett
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