As a child, Montgomery pondered the flight of birds with an interest bordering on obsession. He would chase them into the air and study how many times they flapped their wings to get over a fence. He would capture them and hold them overhead to observe the curve of their wings and how they flexed, searching for the secret that kept them in the air. Years later, he told the Aeronautical Society of New York how he made himself a pair of wings, modeled after his grandmother’s geese, in proper proportion to his own size and weight. But he discovered that no matter how fast or hard he flapped, his feet remained solidly on the ground. Flight was still a mystery.
- In 1883, Montgomery became the first person in America to be freely supported in gliding flights.
- In 1905, he developed a manned glider that was raised by a balloon to substantial heights and released. An associate demonstrated the glider at a pre-selected landing site.
- He continued to develop and improve gliders until he was killed in a gliding accident in 1911.
John Joseph Montgomery made outstanding contributions to aviation with his early research into the nature of the laws of flight, and by building and testing a series of gliders. Montgomery also developed improved methods of glider control, and brought widespread attention to aviation through the public demonstrations of his glider.
Montgomery was most likely the first person in America to be supported freely in the air in a heavier-than-air craft, a glider, without power or control, in 1883. His initial research into the laws of flight was based upon study of birds and tests of models. Montgomery reportedly made and tested his first full-scale glider in 1883 and manned it during runs down a long slope in Otay, California. During those runs (based on the testimony of his brother James who pulled the launching line), John was lifted from the ground. He continued to design and test gliders, using curved wings and a stabilizing tailplane. Montgomery also made efforts at control by manipulating wires which extended laterally to brace the wings.
On April 29th, 1905, at Santa Clara College, where Montgomery was working as a professor, one of his gliders was raised by a captive balloon to an elevation of about 4000 feet. The pilot was Daniel Maloney. The balloon was released and Maloney skillfully maneuvered it during its eight minute descent to earth, landing without injury about three-fourths of a mile from the launching site. This achievement awed the thousands of spectators who were in attendance. Other successful glides followed. At the start of another demonstration on July 18th of that year, the glider was damaged as it lifted from the ground. This was unbeknownst to Maloney. When he separated from the balloon at high altitude, further breakage occurred and Maloney died in the fall.
This tragedy suspended Montgomery’s efforts for six years when he designed a glider having a main wing, fixed fin and tailplane, four-wheeled undercarriage, underslung seat, and a spectacle-form of control handle. From a rolling take-off at the crest of a hill near Evergreen, California, he made more than fifty glides, following generally the contour of the slope. During his final glide, October 31st, 1911, he is reported to have experienced dizziness as he made a rough landing, and the glider turned partly over. Montgomery’s head struck against a protruding bolt, penetrating his brain. Montgomery died shortly thereafter.
John Joseph Montgomery was a sincere student of flight whose efforts covered his adult span of life dating from his graduation at St. Ignatius College in 1879. Economic necessities and application to other efforts interrupted his aeronautical progress. The widespread publicity resulting from his glider demonstrations in 1905 awakened public attention at an early date to the possibilities of human flight.
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