California Aviation History
Forgotten Aviation Pioneer: California's Own John J. Montgomery
By Stephen Clugston,
Curator, March Field Air Museum.

In 2003, we celebrated, across the nation, the Centennial of the Wright Bros. 1903 "First Flight" at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. 20 years earlier, a California Aviation pioneer was active in San Diego and Santa Clara County, which leads to a very interesting tale of how California contributed to very early flight.

The year was 1883, barely 2 years after "the Shootout at the OK Corral" in Tombstone, Arizona. The old West was still in existence at this time, and the Indian Wars were raging throughout the Southwest. Only a couple hundred miles to the west, another history was being made which would pave the way for the next century, and perhaps the next millennium: A man actually flew on the Otay Mesa in San Diego County, California! His name was John Montgomery. Montgomery's 1st glider flight, (certainly, practically the first anywhere, barring England's *Sir George Cayley's 1st "launching" of a coachman in 1848) was in 1883: as maintained by the San Diego Historical Society, which documented Montgomery's work on the Otay Mesa from 1882. This would be a minor point, although some historians claim 1884 instead, there is still the point not addressed by historians who fail to see a connection with Montgomery's publications in Chicago in 1893 and 1894, subsequent to his development of a tandem-wing flyer, and *Prof. Samuel P. Langley's parallel and "coincidental" emergence of a tandem-wing flyer in 1896 in Washington D.C.! On the other hand, it takes a greater leap of faith to believe the Wright's had influenced Alexander Graham Bell (and his commissioning of Glenn Curtiss) or European pioneers such as Dumont and Voisin, simply because they came a few years after the Wrights. In reality, Most aviation pioneers developed independently: Voisin, in France, maintained until his death that no one in Europe (or at least in France) had even heard of the Wrights until 1908, by then the Europeans had flown powered fight since 1906 starting with Santos-Dumont. His native Brazilians regard Dumont as the "Father of Aviation" even today, (admittedly, a mythical point). The argument that Montgomery did not influence other pioneers would also render the Wrights as insignificant since they did not influence anyone immediately, since they preferred to work in secrecy until at least 1905, if not 1908. European pioneers, by this time, were already forging ahead and making their own powered and controlled aircraft without knowledge of, or giving credence to the Wrights until August 1908.


Launching a Montgomery Baloon Glider at Santa Clara

There is also a problem not addressed by historians of Montgomery's litigation against the Wright Co. (which is ironic to say the least). The patents were issued in 1906 and 1905 respectively, which may explain a technicality, but both of these points calls into question the allegation that there was no influence by Montgomery. This was in spite of the fact that the Wrights had published their accomplishments after 1906. The Europeans and even Alexander Graham Bell were ignorant or chose not to take the Wrights seriously and forged ahead independently. To give credence to the Wright's publications as evidence of influence is hypocritical, as the same argument is not allowed to apply to Montgomery, who also published his accomplishments in a timely manner in Chicago and was acknowledged by Octave Chanute, the mentor of the Wright Bros. himself. Many may argue Montgomery invented "hang gliders" but so did Germany's *Otto Lillienthal and Chicago's Chanute, as did the Wrights, so what's the point? Montgomery had controlled tail assemblies, which was the point. In 1905, Montgomery demonstrated his famous "tandem-wing" glider at Santa Clara, California in front of hundreds of onlookers by having pilot Daniel Maloney drop it from a hot air balloon at an unheard of 3,000 foot altitude, and gliding it to safety to the earth below. Octave Chanute and Samuel Langley both hailed this feat as the aviation event of that time, (up to that point). It is odd to note this was in spite of the Wright Bros.' initial success with powered flight almost two years before. It makes a strong case that the Orville and Wilber both worked in secrecy until their official public debuts in America and France in 1908.

Glenn Curtiss, Glenn Martin, other early aviators, were the true pioneers of the California aviation industry, (if not in the entire country: and were certainly the first to sell airplanes, in 1908 & 1909 & 1911). Some historians allege the west coast of writing its' own history, which is also ironic: the east coast has its myths as well! Before 1942, the Smithsonian's official position was that Langley had potentially developed the first successful powered heavier-than-air flyer. In order to receive the original 1903 Wright Flyer from England, Orville Wright made the Smithsonian Institute agree to rewrite its' own history, maintaining that the Wrights were the first to fly manned powered flight. I suppose in another 50 years, historians will revise aviation history again, maintaining that UFOs gave Egyptians the knowledge of the first aircraft, which they will find inside a pyramid somewhere!

I agree Montgomery was not the first, obviously Cayley and others, probably deserves that credit, as far as 1st uncontrolled glider flight. However, Montgomery should be credited for the invention and demonstration of the 1st controlled glider flight, and patented hinged surfaces at the rear of the wing and a patent for the parabolic wing etc. A powered tandem wing was also demonstrated in 1910.

The main problem with Montgomery's recognition is that he did not submit his papers on the revolutionary theories in airfoils and aircraft in Chicago until 1893, one year before 1894: which was the same year Octave Chanute constructed his first successful flight. Therein probably lies the controversy: even though Chanute did publish part of Montgomery's papers, giving him credit. Chanute was still 10 years behind Montgomery's achievements, as was Germany's Lilienthal; who received the credit instead.

There is more than adequate documentation in California, Los Angeles, Santa Clara University, as well as in Chicago and New York which contests the notion that Montgomery did not influence anyone, much less did not document or was credited accordingly.

Montgomery also invented a hinged aileron in 1884, and used cable warping for the tail, making him the first to control flight. He designed several different and successful gliders over a 25-year period. The first, in 1883 was 11 years before Lilienthal's glider experiments. His writings as a PhD were published one year before Lillienthal's first glider flight. Octave Chanute gave Montgomery credit and published some of his scientific findings and experiments as early as 1894 as Samuel Langley also gave him credit. It has always been very curious why this great American aviation pioneer has been overlooked or minimalized. A 1946 movie: "Gallant Journey" by Columbia Pictures was based on his remarkable life, which should have immortalized him for his contributions to early flight. Now that we have celebrated the 100 years of the Wrights' achievement, we can also celebrate the 120 years of the original American aviation pioneer: John J. Montgomery!

References to other aviation pioneers:

*Samuel Pierpoint Langley was commission by the federal government and flew an unmanned powered flights (around 1894-96). He almost flew a manned powered flight one week before the Wrights did at Kitty Hawk in Dec. 1903, but was not successful.

note: [Clement Ader of France had already flown a manned steam powered aircraft 150 feet in 1890! It was not considered a "controlled" flight as the Wright Flyer was. This can be controversial since Ader's craft did have controllable surfaces.]

*Otto Lillienthal of Germany is credited with flying the first successful glider flights (hundreds of them), but he didn't begin until 1893-1894: 10 years after Montgomery had already been flying gliders and had already published his scientific findings in 1893.

*Sir George Cayley is considered the true "Father of Aviation" in that he developed and launched the first successful manned glider in the 1840s. He also published many of the original scientic Principles of Flight as early as 1799.


Montgomery, John J. "Discussions on the Various Papers on Soaring Flight" Proceedings of the International Conference on Aerial Navigation, Chicago, Aug. 1-4. 1893 246-49.

Chanute, Octave, Progress in Flying Machines. NY: American Engineering and Railroad Journal Press. 1894

Montgomery. The Mechanics Involved in a Bird's Wing in Soaring and Their Relation to Aeronautics, Nov. 9, 1897 Address to the Southern California Academy of Sciences, Los Angeles.

Montgomery. "Aeroplane" PATENT No. 831,173, application filed April 26, 1905, issued Sept. 1906.

Montgomery. "Principles Involved in the Formation of Winged Surfaces and the Phenomenon of Soaring", presented at the Aeronautics Congress, New York, Oct. 28-29, 1907.

Lougheed (Lockheed), Victor, "Vehicles of the Air", 3rd ed. Reilly and Britton, Co. 1909.

Spearman, Arthur Dunning, S. J. John J. Montgomery, "Father of Basic Flying". Santa Clara University 1967 and 2nd ed. 1977.

"John Joseph Montgomery 1883 Glider", The American Society of Mechanical Engineers and Santa Clara University.

Also publicly documented:

The 1883 (or 1884) Glider (evidence of his workshop on Otay Mesa dates to 1882-1883 by the San Diego Historical Society).

Montgomery's New Series of Gliders:

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Updated 8 February 2016