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John Joseph Montgomery: Forgotten Catholic Pioneer of the Air

In 1884 John Joseph Montgomery made the first manned, controlled, heavier than air flight in a glider he built.  Born in 1858, he became intrigued with flight when as a boy in 1869 he witnessed the historic flight of the steam driven proto blimp Aviator Hermes, Jr. built by Frederick Marriott.  In 1883 Montgomery built a wing flapping glider that of course failed as a glider.  In 1884 he made aviation history by building a monoplane glider with curved wings.  He flew a considerable distance at Otay Mesa near San Diego, California.  In 1884-1885 he built a monoplane glider with flat wings, with hinged surfaces at the backs of the wings to maintain lateral balance, the first step towards ailerons.  He also used cables to control the tale of his glider.

In 1885 or 1886 he built a water tank and experimented hundreds of times with moving water over surfaces to understand the movement of air over wings.

A Catholic, Montgomery earned his BA and MA from Saint Ignatius College in 1879 and 1880.  He went on to earn a doctorate in physics from the Jesuit College, Santa Clara, where he was a professor from 1898 until his death.  The Jesuits were quite enthusiastic about the aviation work of Montgomery and extended facilities at the college for him to conduct his experiments and build his gliders, one of which was named Santa Clara.

In 1893 Montgomery was a speaker at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where he and another aviation pioneer, Octave Chanute, held discussions with other enthusiasts for heavier than air flight.

Montgomery took out a patent on his version of an airplane in 1905.

Throughout the years Montgomery continued his work on gliders.  It was perhaps fitting that he died, as so many of the aviation pioneers did, in a crash in the glider The Evergreen near Evergreen, California on October 31, 1911.  He was buried in Holy Cross cemetery on November 3 in Colma, California.

Over the years the contributions of Montgomery to aviation have been largely forgotten.  An exception to the oblivion in which his memory has largely been cast was a movie on his life in 1946,  Gallant Journey, starring Glenn Ford.  Another film, go here to view its Kickstart page, is planned to help remind people of this forgotten man whose name should rank with the Wright brothers.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

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