Ten years before Joan Merriam Smith and Jerrie Mock successfully completed their solo flights around the world, Dianna Converse Cyrus Bixby planned to become the first woman to complete an official solo flight around the globe. While I had heard of Dianna and knew a little bit about her, it wasn’t until recently that I learned a whole lot more.
While looking for articles that Trixie had written about other female pilots, I came across this gem from a March 1954 edition of The Milwaukee Journal about none other than Dianna Bixby! In the article entitled “Young Mother of 2 Ready to Try to Fly Alone Around the World,” Trixie interviews 31-year old Bixby and reports on her plans to fly around the world in a De Haviland Mosquito Bomber. Back in 1954, no woman had yet completed an official solo flight around the globe.
While there were at least two women who had completed solo flights around the world prior to 1954, neither flight was considered official. For example, both Mary Petre Bruce and Elly Beinhorn flew around the world in 1930 and 1931, respectively. In both cases, their planes had to be shipped across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Dianna was an accomplished pilot with some 5,000 hours of flight time accumulated by age 31. In 1954, she flew produce 3-4 times per week in-between the United States and Mexico. She also flew passengers around the western half of the United States for the U.S. Forest Service. And, she also flew DC-3s for the movie industry, accumulating some 4,000 hours alone as a DC-3 (camera) pilot.
Standing at just 5 foot 2, Dianna’s personality was described as spunky; she was referred to as a “pretty pixie” with an infectious smile. As a child she rode horses bare back in the circus, accumulating a room full of trophies earned through horsemanship. She studied soprano singing and acted in Santa Barbara, California-based theater groups; she also played violin.
Dianna had a famous grandmother named Mary Parker Converse, who was the first woman to be commissioned by the United States Merchant Marine. (Click here to read “Running over the waves: Mary Parker Converse” from the Boston, MA website Wicked Local, which offers a wonderful summary about Mary’s life and accomplishments.) With a grandmother like Mary, there’s no doubt that Dianna gleaned much wisdom and inspiration from her. From the above-referenced article, the author writes this about Mary:
No stranger to tragedy, Dianna lost her first husband Capt. John Volney Cyrus in 1945 when his plane was shot down during the Battle of the Bulge. According to the book Soaring Skyward by Claudine Bennett, Dianna accepted John’s proposal of marriage on the condition that he would teach her to fly. Dianna would continue flying following her husband’s death. Shortly after the loss of her husband, her mother passed away. While flying air freight in 1948, she met and married Robert Bixby, a wartime Air Transport Command pilot. Together they had two children. Her first born, Lillian, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Dianna’s World Flight Attempts
After the loss of her first husband, Dianna set her sights on becoming the first woman to circle the globe. Seeking out Paul Mantz (who had been Earhart’s technical advisor) for assistance, she got to work and in 1947 she set her first air record, which was a speed record between Denver and Burbank of 2 hours, 19 minutes, and 20 seconds. With Mantz’s prompting, she entered the Cleveland to Los Angeles Bendix Air Race. While she didn’t win the race, she was one of only two women who entered.
In 1950, Dianna and her husband Robert attempted a world flight, but their right engine blew a gasket near Calcutta. Due to the need for major repairs, they were unable to continue. Robert next agreed to let her make the attempt by herself since no one else had yet completed the record. However, it would take them some time to raise the money. The cost of such a flight to Dianna (minus sponsorships, presumably) was estimated to be around $17,000 for fuel plus a $2,500 fee to the aeronautical association, or $190,000 in 2021 dollars. In the early 1950’s, she underwent specialized high altitude training at Lockheed Aviation in Burbank, CA.
Dianna worked long and hard hours in preparation for her world flight attempts. Together with her husband, she ran a business transporting produce known as Bixby’s Airborne Products. It is of interest to note here that Jack Smith, Joan Merriam Smith’s husband, worked for the Bixby’s. A normal day for Dianna would begin at 5 am. After leaving her children in the care of a nurse, she would set off for flying until at least 4:30 p.m.. She is quoted as saying: “In aviation, you’re either in it 24 hours a day or not at all.”
Dianna’s planned route for her 1954 attempt was 20,525 miles, beginning in San Francisco, continuing on to Newark, followed by a 3,642-mile leg over to Paris, then Bashra (Iraq), Karachi, Calcutta, Tokyo, Midway Island, and back to San Francisco. On April 3, 1954 (just a few days after Trixie’s article was published) she was set to make the journey, but power plant troubles with her plane in addition to the prospect of bad weather forced her to cancel. She was determined to try again.
In the runup to her next world flight attempt, tragedy again struck when Dianna ran out of gas in inclement weather en route to Mexico. Less than a year following her interview with Trixie, Dianna crashed into the ocean and died. A January 5, 1955 summary from the Pomona Progress Bulletin reads as follows:
Even though Dianna was not able to achieve her dream of becoming the first woman to circle the globe as a solo flier, her efforts were not lost. She was a true pioneer: focused, goal-oriented, and willing to take great risks to achieve her dreams. “The problem human beings face is not that we aim too high and fail, but that we aim too low and succeed.” — Michelangelo