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John Joseph Montgomery - Aeronautics Pioneer

John Joseph Montgomery (1858-1911), Santa Clara alumnus and professor of physics, was the first to pilot a manned, controlled flight of a heavier-than-air machine—20 years before the historic flights of the Wright brothers! Unfortunately, since his experiments took place in California, far from the publicized aviation trials that were happening on the East Coast, and because he lacked the means to afford a patent on his 1883 glider, his accomplishment was not immediately widely recognized.  

In 1883, Montgomery flew his glider 600 feet and entered the annals of aeronautics history. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers dedicated an International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark recognizing the pioneering achievement of John Joseph Montgomery. The plaque reads, “This glider was way ahead of its time, incorporating a single parabolic, cambered wing, with stabilizing and control surfaces at the rear of the fuselage. With his glider’s success, Montgomery demonstrated aerodynamic principles and designs fundamental to modern aircraft.”

Following his landmark achievement in 1883, Montgomery spent the next 10 years studying the principles of flight and the relationship between the wing surface and the air. He published several papers during this time and worked on a series of model gliders before building the Santa Clara, which performed horizontal figure-eights, well-controlled turns, and spirals, soaring nearly 4,000 feet above the Santa Clara Valley, for 15 to 20 minutes as witnessed by hundreds of onlookers, including members of the press.

In 1911, Montgomery built the Evergreen, using a design that was created to tolerate turbulence and wind gusts. A number of innovative elements were incorporated into the design, including single-wing, aft-tail layout and wheel-yoke control, a major step in aircraft control. It was in the testing of the controls on this craft that Montgomery met his untimely death from a head injury.

In recognition of the 125th anniversary of this landmark achievement, the City of San Jose dedicated a piece of public art commemorating Montgomery and his contribution to the evolution of aeronautics. Located at the site of Montgomery’s final flight in the Evergreen District of San Jose, the piece is a steel rendering of an airplane wing, situated in a public plaza.

Today, those who have admired Montgomery’s innovative contributions to the field of aeronautics are seeking to endow an award in his honor. We invite you to support The John Joseph Montgomery Gold Medal for Distinguished Innovation in Aeronautics. More information here.

Read more about the man who was called “an unfailing example to the few in each generation who ignore the discouragements of doubt and dare the summits of human achievement.” (Victor Lougheed, co-founder Lockheed Aircraft Co., 1912)

For a definitive biography on Montgomery, see Quest for Flight (Univ. of Oklahoma Press).

John J. Montgomery, SCU Archives Quest for Flight book cover John Montgomery 1883 Glider An International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark John Montgomery, SCU Archives Click here to learn more about the Montgomery Medal
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