British Columbia

Athlete of the week: Bob Dixon, RCAF pilot

The remarkable story of Richmond-born athlete and RCAF pilot Bob Dixon is finally coming to light 75 years after his death thanks to a push to have him inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.

'He was a pioneering sportsman ... but he liked to fly air planes, shoot people and get paid for it.'

Joe Hoar holds a portrait of his late great-uncle Bob Dixon, who died in a plane crash in 1941 while with the RCAF. "He was a pioneering sportsman," says Hoar, who is spearheading a push to get Dixon into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame. (Karin Larsen/CBC)

Name: Robert "Bob" Dixon

Born: 1908

Died: 1941, in an RCAF plane crash

Sports: Javelin, Track, Lacrosse

Hometown: Richmond, B.C.

Claims to Fame: Javelin champion, RCAF fighter pilot, mercenary, mayoral body guard, rascal

Story: On Jan. 11, 1941, Robert Dixon was in the air north of Winnipeg, flying a fighter plane that had just arrived, fresh off a U.S. assembly line.

One of Bob Dixon's obituaries called the plane crash in which he died his "last adventure." (Joe Hoar)

The Royal Canadian Air Force test pilot did what he had done dozens of times before and put the plane into a loop-the-loop.

It crested and began to descend towards the earth. No one knows why it never leveled off.

Dixon was killed on impact. He was 32.

His death was covered extensively by the newspapers of the day, one highlighting Dixon's "enthusiasm for airplanes and adventure." But his name has faded with the passing time.

Now, 75 years after his death, a push to get Robert "Bob" Dixon inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame is shining a spotlight on a remarkable life story that reads like something ripped from an Indian Jones movie script.

Dixon was a well-known sportsman in the Vancouver area in the 1920s and 1930s, and at one time held a job as the masseuse, body guard and driver for former Vancouver mayor Gerry McGeer, according to his family. (Joe Hoar)

"Sure, he was a pioneering sportsman," said Joe Hoar, Dixon's great-nephew, who is spearheading the nomination.

"But there's the other side too, which is that he liked to fly airplanes and shoot people and get paid for it."

Gold medals, Olympics, Mann Cup

First, the athletic credentials which are surely Hall of Fame worthy:

  • Gold medal in javelin, 1934 British Empire Games (unconfirmed world record).
  • Canadian javelin and shot put champion, 1934.
  • 1932 Olympian in lacrosse (he ended up coaching the team but did not play in Los Angeles).
  • 1930 Mann Cup champion with the New Westminster Salmonbellies.
Dixon's winning throw at the 1934 British Empire Games in London was 196 feet, 11 inches. Javelins were made of hickory wood with a metal tip in that era, and were much heavier than the modern-day version. (Joe Hoar)

A scrapbook of old newspaper clippings reveals Dixon's early years — from all-around athlete and "speed demon" on the "famous" High School of Commerce track team (which included two-time Olympic gold medalist Percy Williams), to his move to the University of Southern California where he was described as a better prospect for the 1936 Berlin Olympics "than any other javelin thrower who can represent the United States."

But Dixon never made it to Berlin.

Thirst for adventure

Hoar remembers a story his late mother used to tell about the time Uncle Bob flew his plane low over the family farm on Lulu Island (now Richmond).

"He dropped oranges from the plane onto the fields, and the children would scramble around to find them," recounts Hoar.

Bob Dixon is surrounded by his nieces and nephews on Lulu Island in this undated photo. His great-nephew says Dixon would fly his plane low over the family farm and drop oranges for the children to find. (Joe Hoar)

Dixon had learned to fly at the Lulu Island Flying Field, likely drawn there by the personality trait that would most influence his short life.

"He was a thrill seeker," said Hoar. "He was young ... and he had a sense of fun."

Dixon's thirst for adventure grew. He enrolled in a school for machine gunners near Los Angeles, joined a group of California-based mercenaries and headed to China.

There he was paid to fly Russian-built biplanes and wage war against the Japanese.

Dixon did two tours in China, somehow becoming  the right-hand man of influential Chinese general Chang-Tso-Lin, according to newspaper reports.

"He was a confident guy who could talk his way into anything," said Hoar, noting that Dixon's charm also gained him a job as Vancouver mayor Gerry McGeers's masseuse, bodyguard and driver for a time.

Bob Dixon is seen on the right labeled "Robbie" in an undated photo. (Joe Hoar)

'Crazy tragedy of it all'

Dixon was thriving in China in 1939, but when World War II broke out, he immediately paid his own way home to join the Royal Canadian Air Force.

"He was just itching to do the same thing here," said Hoar.  "As soon as he could serve his country, he did."​

The RCAF put his thousands of hours of flying experience to good use. Dixon trained young pilots and ferried new planes across the U.S. border before putting them through their paces as a test pilot.

Hoar says it's hard to reconcile how Dixon died, especially knowing what he survived.

"He had umpteen opportunities to crash flying those Russian rust buckets in China. The fact that he died in a brand new plane, doing a loop-the-loop without any artillery being fired, that's the crazy tragedy of it all."

Bob Dixon won the javelin gold medal at the 1934 British Empire Games and won the 1930 Mann Cup with the New Westminster Salmonbellies lacrosse team. (Joe Hoar)

Funeral scandal

Dixon was engaged to a woman he had met in Shanghai when he died.

But at his funeral, two women showed up, both claiming to be romantically involved with him.

"It was a scandal," laughs Hoar, who bears some resemblance to his late great-uncle.

"But let's be honest, he was a good looking guy!"

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