John J. Montgomery, Pioneer Aviator and Inventor

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Visitors to the San Diego Air & Space Museum are treated to a special exhibit about San Diego’s pioneer aviator and inventor John J. Montgomery. The Montgomery exhibit is in the Theodore Gildred Rotunda, just a few steps inside the Museum’s main entrance.

As early as 1883, Montgomery initiated a series of investigations at Otay, California just south of San Diego to understand the physical basis of aerodynamic lift and it generation by surfaces moving through the air. Trained in Newtonian physics, he made these investigations through hypothesis-driven research using small scale models, various experimental devises, and manned flying machines. The results of his experiments between 1883-1886 at Otay led Montgomery to not only understand the importance of curved airfoils for lift, but also to develop mechanical systems for controlled flight.

Montgomery was one of the first to develop a basis for aerodynamics as a science. Between 1886-1895, these concepts were solidified into a general theory for the circulation of flow over a wing. After moving to norther California, Montgomery continued his aeronautical investigations. Using a wind tunnel of his own design and construction at Santa Clara College, Montgomery assisted Thomas Baldwin in the development of dirigible propellers in 1903.

By 1905, Montgomery generated a new series of gliders with tandem wings and control systems derived from his experience at Otay. These gliders were launched from hot-air balloons from high altitudes by daring aeronauts. In April, 1905, at Santa Clara, California aeronaut Daniel Maloney succeeded in the first public demonstration of heavier-than-air flight in the United States using a balloon-launched Montgomery tandem-wing glider. Montgomery patented this aircraft and its wing-warping control system at the same time as the Wright Brothers did the same.

In 1911, Montgomery developed another glider based on his investigations from 1903-1905. This new glider, The Evergreen, used radically new control systems whereby the pilot could control both pitch and roll through the wing not the tail. More than 50 flights were made with the glider, however, Montgomery perished on October 31, 1911 as a result of a glider accident with this aircraft before a motor could be applied. He is remembered as a true pioneer of both the art and science of American Aviation.

Today, Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in Kearny Mesa just north of downtown San Diego is named for John J. Montgomery and fellow San Diego aviation legend Bill Gibbs.

San Diego Air & Space Museum

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