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YESTERDAY’S TOPIC WAS pioneer aviator John J. Montgomery’s demonstration of controlled flight of a heavier-than-air craft. The year was 1883, nine years before the Wright Brothers opened their bicycle shop, two decades before the Wrights’ powered aeroplane. A primary source for this tale is Craig S. Harwood’s Quest for Flight: John J. Montgomery and the Dawn of Aviation in the West.
A series of complications explains why Montgomery’s achievements are largely unheralded, whereas the Wright Brothers are well known. At least in part, this was because of rivalries among pioneer aviators. Today in Part 2, we continue this saga.
Balloon Assists. By 1905, Montgomery’s latest glider, The Santa Clara, was being raised aloft by balloon to altitudes as great as 4000 feet, then released for exhibitions of controlled maneuvering and a smooth landing.
Alas, on July 18, 1905, The Santa Clara’s tail was damaged by the balloon’s liftoff tethering. Author Craig Harwood describes the dilemma faced by Daniel Maloney, pilot of The Santa Clara: “… he could stay attached to the balloon and descend with it as it cooled, or he could attempt flight despite the damage. The crowd of friends below waited in excited anticipation for his glide. In a fateful decision, Maloney released the glider from the balloon.”
The glide began successfully, but then the tail of The Santa Clara fluttered violently, the craft became uncontrollable, somersaulted, and plunged earthward. Maloney died of his injuries soon after the impact.
Responses to the Tragedy. A local newspaper noted, “Maloney had endeared himself to every one connected with the college by his modest, unassuming manners, his bravery and his indomitable will. Prof. Montgomery was heart-broken.” Harwood observes, “The problems encountered with Montgomery’s gliding demonstration had everything to do with the tenuous nature of the balloon-assisted launch method.”
Ex-business partner and balloonist Thomas Baldwin commented: “The aeroplane invented by Professor Montgomery is really nothing better than a disguised infernal machine, certain to kill any man who shall try to operate it at any appreciable altitude.”
The Evergreen. By October 1911, Montgomery’s latest monoplane glider, The Evergreen, had flown more than 30 times. The glider’s name derived from the region of these flights, east of San Jose, California.
On the morning of October 31, 1911, as described by Harwood, “Just after liftoff, he lost control of The Evergreen, and it went into a stall and crashed.” Montgomery died some three hours after the accident; he was 53.
Adversaries’ View. Harwood notes, “Thomas Baldwin learned of John’s death on November 1. He immediately wrote to Orville Wright to share the news and to reaffirm their mutual attitude toward Montgomery: ‘Thus ends the career of a man who claimed so much and did so little.’ Orville responded, ‘Montgomery had a number of admirers, for what reason I never clearly understood, for I cannot think of anything of any value that originated with him.’ ”
Harwood observes, “The opinions of Montgomery’s two chief adversaries contrasted starkly with those expressed by the overwhelming majority of Montgomery’s peers and the general public.”
More Than 30 Years Later. In 1944, plans were initiated in San Diego to memorialize Montgomery’s aeronautical achievements. Orville Wright learned of this through an associate who reasoned, “I feel if this matter is not very carefully handled, it might re-open old controversies and wounds….”
Wright responded with a memorandum that, Harwood asserts, is “filled with misinformation, contradictory talking points, and misleading statements apparently intended to present Montgomery’s activities and accomplishments in an artificial context and debase his legacy.”
Gallant Journey. In 1946, William A. Wellman directed Gallant Journey, what IMDb describes as “a biopic of the U.S. aviation pioneer John J. Montgomery who was the first American to fly a glider in 1883.”
Wellman, having been a World War I pilot, possessed aviation credentials of long standing. He had also directed Wings, the 1927 classic garnering the first Oscar for Best Picture.
Word of Gallant Journey‘s production generated another anti-Montgomery campaign, again supported by Orville Wright. In fact, Wright’s memorandum evolved into an article called the “Montgomery Myth,” published in April 1946.
Despite this pressuring, the movie made its debut, appropriately in San Diego, in September 1946. Today, IMBd gives it a 6.5/10 rating. I recall liking it better than that. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020