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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published January 07 2012

Eriksmoen: First to fly nonstop length of US born, raised in North Dakota

The first person to fly nonstop the full length of the continental U.S. in a light aircraft was born and raised in North Dakota.

On July 7, 1929, Dwight Zimmerley flew from Brownsville, Texas, to Winnipeg. The 1,725 mile flight took 16 hours and established a distance record for light airplanes. Seven months later, Zimmerley established the altitude record for similar aircrafts. Both of his records lasted for decades.

Zimmerley started out as a barnstorm pilot and later became a test pilot for experimental aircrafts. He ended his flying career as a commercial airline pilot, after more than 30 years of flying and more than 3,000,000 miles.

Zimmerley was born March 1, 1898, to Frank and Jennie Zimmerley in Cogswell, 60 miles southwest of Fargo. Frank was a successful machine and lumber dealer who died on June 13, 1906, leaving his widow with three young children. As the only son, Dwight became the principle breadwinner when he became older.

Zimmerley was one of the first people in Cogswell to own an automobile, which he loved to drive at full speed. As a result, he was given the nickname “Barney” because Barney Oldfield was a famous race car driver at the time.

After graduating from high school, Zimmerley enrolled at the University of North Dakota. When the U.S. became involved in World War I, he dropped out of college and enlisted in the Army on April 22, 1917. Zimmerley was sent to Jefferson Barracks in Missouri and, in 1918, was assigned to the 244th Aero Squadron at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas. He was trained as a mechanic. He was discharged on Sept. 29, 1919, but re-enlisted to be trained as a pilot.

Zimmerley received his final discharge on April 15, 1920, and returned to Cogswell. He purchased an airplane and “barnstormed the country, hauling passengers and doing stunt flying.” He also gave flying lessons and charged passengers for short-term joy rides. In 1923, he moved to Chicago, where he was a buyer for the Swift Co.

In 1925, Russell “Penny” Nicholas established the Marshall Flying School, a subsidiary of the Nicholas-Beazley Airplane Co. that he co-owned in Marshall, Mo. Zimmerley applied in 1926 to be an instructor and was hired. Soon, it became “the world’s largest civilian air school.”

One of the airplane designers hired by the school was Walter Barling. In 1927, the company built the first Barling NB-3, and Zimmerley was assigned as the test pilot. The NB-3 was a light-weight plane that “used new design concepts and construction and had excellent performances with its 60 horse power Anzani engine.”

Zimmerley put the NB-3 to a major test in summer 1929. He hoped to become the first to fly a “light plane,” an aircraft weighing less than 881 pounds, nonstop across the full length of the continental U.S. In the early morning hours of July 7, Zimmerley took off from an air field in Brownsville. Zimmerley started off in a complete fog and couldn’t see his instruments. Storm clouds started gathering as he neared Madison, S.D. In an open cockpit, he encountered a thunder storm and flew over his hometown of Cogswell soaking wet. He dropped a message with a long red streamer telling of his location. He did the same as he flew over his wife’s home town of Stirum, N.D. When Zimmerley arrived in Winnipeg at 6:45 p.m. after 16 hours, he still had several hours of fuel left. The total cost of fuel for the flight was $25.

Zimmerley’s next goal was to break the altitude record for a light airplane. The record of 22,250 feet was established on July 8, 1927, by German ace Paul Bäumer, who shot down 43 aircraft during World War I. One week later, Bäumer was killed performing aerial acrobatics. On Feb. 17, 1930, Zimmerley, in his NB-3, took off from Park Airport in East St. Louis, Mo., and flew to a record height of 27,350 feet. In the open cockpit, he experienced a temperature of 32 degrees below zero and winds of 120 mph.

As a national hero, Zimmerley received offers to endorse several products. Old print ads show him in his flight gear, goggles, and helmet praising Champion Spark Plugs. In another ad, he is quoted as saying, “I’m riding with Old Golds. They’re great cigarettes.”

After leaving NB, Zimmerley became a commercial pilot for Mid-Continent and Braniff Airlines. During World War II, he was a test pilot at Wold-Chamberlain Airfield in Minneapolis.

Zimmerley died on Aug. 23, 1994, at the age of 96. An interesting footnote about Zimmerley was that his daughter Virginia married “Stormin Norman” Stewart, the head basketball coach at the University of Missouri from 1967 to 1999 who guided that team to 16 NCAA tournament appearances.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.