Simanaitis Says

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AWHILE BACK I viewed Gallant Journey, 1946, on “Turner Classic Movies.” It was a pleasant enough flick, starring Glenn Ford as California aviation pioneer John J. Montgomery. Little did I know, however, its backstory is still being played out.

John Joseph Montgomery, 1858–1911, American inventor, physicist, engineer, pioneer aviator, and professor at Santa Clara College.

 A few weeks ago, I got a nice note from a fellow named Craig Harwood. He had found interest in one of my Vintage Aero bits here at SimanaitisSays and kindly offered to share an aviation technical paper and a book he had co-authored. The book, Quest for Flight, is about the Gallant Journey aviator John J. Montgomery. In fact, Harwood is the great-great-grandson of prominent California politician Zachariah Montgomery; and Zach was John J. Montgomery’s father.

Quest for Flight: John J. Montgomery and the Dawn of Aviation in the West, by Craig S. Harwood and Gary B. Fogel, University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.

Quest for Flight’s 241 pages, 62 of them dedicated to Notes, Bibliography, Glossary, and Index, give details far beyond Gallant Journey. Both the book and movie describe Montgomery’s achievements in aviation as well as his struggles in lawsuits defending his inventions.

Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits about Montgomery’s squabbles with other pioneer aviators. It was a wild and woolly era, remnants of which remained as late as the 1946 filming of Gallant Journey. Not to give too much away, but one of the heavies is Orville Wright (see “The Wright Bros. vs Glenn Curtiss” here at SimanaitisSays. 

This wonderful Jon Dahlstrom illustration in R&T, December 2003, suggests the drama of the pioneer era.

Historical Perspective. In 1883 (nine years before the Wright Brothers opened their bicycle shop; 17 years before the brothers’ first gliders), Montgomery piloted a glider in what’s now recognized as the first controlled heavier-than-air flight in the Western Hemisphere. (Elsewhere, Englishman George Cayley urged an employee to fly in an 1853 glider of his design; no fool Cayley.)

Montgomery’s Otay Mesa Flights, 1883-1886. By the spring of 1884, Montgomery and his glider were flying distances of 600 feet from the west rim of Otay Mesa, south of San Diego.

Harwood writes, “The airfoil used on this first glider was based on John’s observation and measurements of the wings of the California gull (Larus californicus), a bird that is ubiquitous throughout coastal California. This glider had a wood frame (ash and spruce); the wing was made from oiled cotton fabric, with a wingspan of 20 feet and chord of 4 1/2 feet. It weighed 40 pounds and had an operable semicircular elevator (tail) connected by a cable to a wooden handle beside the pilot’s seat.”

A Montgomery sketch of his second glider, 1885. Noteworthy are its hinged elevator for pitch control and dihedral aiding lateral stability. This and other images from Quest for Flight.

Controlling Pitch and Roll. Harwood describes  Montgomery’s attention to flight control: “By setting the wings at a dihedral angle, thereby mimicking the turkey vulture in soaring flight, he increased the lateral stability. He continued to address roll control by varying the angle of attack of the wings (either in unison or independently) while in flight.”

Chanute, Baldwin, and Wright. At Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893, Montgomery met pioneer aeronautical theorist Octave Chanute. Their initial mutual respect evolved into continued correspondence and Montgomery’s publishing several of his findings in the July 1894 Aeronautics. The correspondence proved problematic later, however, as Chanute shared details with the Wright Brothers, despite all of these pioneers being notoriously sensitive about their proprietary knowledge.

A Montgomery wind tunnel. Harwood notes, “The year of its construction is unknown, but it is probably the one alluded to by Baldwin in 1904.”

The Baldwin Matter. Thomas Baldwin was a pioneer aviator who had transformed his circus tightrope act into parachuting from balloons and, later, piloting them. 

Baldwin’s California Arrow airship, 1904. Image from

As noted in Wikipedia, “In early 1903 veteran balloonist Thomas Baldwin sought Montgomery’s knowledge of aeronautics…. Baldwin wanted improved propeller designs for dirigibles.” With this in mind, he studied with Professor Montgomery at Santa Clara College (now Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara University). 

In 1904, Baldwin and Montgomery entered into a contractual agreement that led to a squabble. As Harwood notes in Quest for Flight, Baldwin initially credited Montgomery with the propeller design, then later “emphasized the scientific training he had received at Santa Clara College, but this time he did not even mention Montgomery, implying instead that Father Bell [a Jesuit physicist at the college] was his instructor. This was the final straw for both John and Father Bell.”  

At one point, Baldwin said of Montgomery, “There is absolutely nothing new about The Arrow that came directly or indirectly from Professor Montgomery…” 

Er… what about that propeller? 

Tomorrow in Part 2, the Montgomery/Baldwin relationship worsens through tragedy. Orville Wright gets involved as well. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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