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IT WAS A FABULOUS time for aviation, the 1920s. Airplanes had proved their mettle in World War I. Plenty of these craft were now surplus, offering inexpensive means for the adventurous to get into the business of building and flying aircraft in peacetime. Californian Kenneth Montee, his brothers and his father, James W. “Dad” Montee, got caught up in this, along with a Santa Monica neighbor named Douglas. Yes, that Douglas, as in Douglas Aircraft.
Kenneth Montee, 1887 – 1926, was a flying instructor in Texas during World War I. Afterward, he relocated to California just about when the fledgling Air Service of the U.S. Army established Clover Field on April 15, 1923, near Santa Monica’s Pacific coast.
Clover Field was named in honor of pilot Lt. Greayer “Grubby” Clover, who grew up nearby and was killed in WWI action. Today, Clover Field is part of Santa Monica Municipal Airport.
Kenneth Montee set up Clover Field’s first commercial hangar, where he and his brothers operated a flying service and the K.W. Montee Aircraft Co. An advertisement of the era cited the company’s expertise in “Aerial Survey and Oblique Photography” as well as “Custom Built Aircraft.”
Perhaps a dozen aircraft were built, several using surplus pieces of this and that. One had the fuselage of a Curtiss Jenny combined with the wing of a Fokker C-4.
One by one, others of the Montee family soloed. According to Los Angeles Aeronautics, J.W. “Dad” Montee did so in 1922 at the age of 60. He was to continue flying into his 90s, the oldest pilot in U.S. history. In fact, the elder Montee’s flying career was to confound historians with a March 1946 item in Flying magazine claiming he soloed that year at age 83.
In 1953, Dad Montee again made the news by joining the Civil Air Patrol, the U.S. Air Force auxiliary. The CAP’s newsletter Wing Talk noted, “ ‘Dad’ Montee gained nation-wide publicity recently when he flew a single-engine Inland Sport, a Twin-Beech and a Lockheed T-33 jet trainer all in one day in celebration of the golden jubilee of powered flight.”
Back in 1925, Kenneth flew one of his own designs to a first place in the On To New York race; another Montee aircraft finished second. This competition was part of the National Air Races, held at Long Island’s Mitchel Field that year.
The Montee brothers flew in exhibitions as the Los Angeles Flying Circus, with the claim of being the only American family all of whose men were pilots. They were also flying instructors for Cecil B. DeMille’s Mercury Airlines. Alas, Kenneth died of scarlet fever, at age 29, in 1926.
There was another pioneer aviator making Clover Field history, a fellow named Donald Wills Douglas, Sr. He founded Douglas Aircraft Company in 1921, even before the Air Service established Clover Field, which evolved adjacent to the Douglas factory.
When the U.S. Air Service decided in 1923 to attempt the world’s first aerial circumnavigation, it looked to Douglas to design a suitable craft.
The Douglas facility occupied an abandoned movie studio in Santa Monica. On March 17, 1924, the four Douglas World Cruisers took to the air from Clover Field. Two crashed, without serious injury; the other two returned to Clover Field some 29,000 miles and 175 days later, having successfully circumnavigated the globe.
I like to image the Flying Montees were all in attendance to celebrate their departure and return. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016
Sadly the city of Santa Monica appears every year a little bit closer to their long time goal of closing the Santa Monica Airport.
More’s the pity, given its rich history.
That is a great bit of history, of which I was not aware. My wife and I live a neighborhood block away from SMO and love the history associated with the location (and love just living near the airport). I wish SMO’s organizations did a better job advertising the sites history (historical landmark?), for both public education and to discourage those who desire to close it.
Thanks again for the great article,
Many thanks, Dave, for your kind comments. Enjoy SMO.
I am the great great niece of James (pop) Montee. My son is named in his honor, James Montee Lehnhoff. Always been interested in his career and legacy.
My husband’s grandpa was Lee J. Montee, a cousin to James Montee. He has an original newspaper clipping talking about “Dad” Montee flying at 91 years old. Amazing man and now I know why my husband of 50 years has had no fear in all of his business ventures and his hobbies of fishing, hunting, skiing-water and snow. It is a great legacy and a treasure to be related to this man and his family.
I’m doing research on the life of Anthony Luz who flew with JW. If any of you have any information on him I would really appreciate the feedback. I also have a lot of clippings of JW if any of you are interested in seeing them. Thanks Len Johnson
Correction to my earlier post. I rechecked the log book and it looks like Anthony flew the traveler with Ralph.