Any child who has ever seen a bird soar through the sky has wanted to fly. Greek mythology tells of Icarus who died trying to fly. Leonardo da Vinci designed a flying machine but never built it. The first time that people ascended into the rarefied air was in a hot air balloon in 1783 and shortly thereafter the first parachute jump occurred.
Fast forward to Santa Cruz in 1904 where Fred Swanton has Daniel Maloney, under the pseudonym of Jerome Lascelles, parachuting out of a hot air balloon down to the beach in front of Swanton’s Neptune’s Casino for the entertainment of the onlookers. What better person than Maloney to pilot the first public demonstration of a fixed wing aircraft and who better to promote it than Swanton.
It all started with John Montgomery who was one of those children who wanted to fly like a bird, and he was not alone. People of his generation around the world were inventing and testing theories of aeronautics. In 1884, Montgomery flew a glider 600 feet at Otay Mesa near San Diego, 20 years before the Wright brothers. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers recognized Montgomery’s 1884 flight as the first manned, controlled flight of a heavier-than air machine.
John Montgomery went on to become a teacher of mathematics and science at Santa Clara College where he continued his experiments in flight. Another teacher, James Leonard, invited Montgomery to carry out his experiments at his father’s ranch in Aptos. Starting in 1903, Montgomery launched a tandem-wing model with a three-foot-six-inch wingspan off the Manressa railroad trestle. He continued to increase the size of his models, testing for stability, until his final version was 28 feet across. (We have replicas of the original model and a full-scale wing in our museum.)
“Montgomery wanted to fly like a bird. He chose to create a controlled glider and then add an engine. He was able to also design practical propellers. In March 1905, after years of research and testing, Montgomery used a hot air balloon to lift his flying machine, which he called an “aeroplane,” into the sky and cut it loose over Aptos at heights of 800 to 3,000 feet. On the longest flight, his pilot, Daniel Maloney, flew two miles over the area for 18 minutes with perfect control. The pilot, Daniel Maloney playfully darted downward and upward, described circles and abruptly checked his speed by a quick movement of the controls. He was utterly at ease whether going into the wind, or flying with it. He carefully selected his landing location, and landed lightly on his feet. The following month the feat was repeated in Santa Clara in front of 1,500 people. Fred Swanton made sure that all the flights were documented by the press. Because the Wright brothers did not prove their claims until they had secured patent rights, Montgomery’s flights were the first public exhibitions in the world which proved that a fixed winged, heavier than air craft was capable of carrying a person in ‘Fully Controlled Flight’. These flights were the first high-altitude flights in the world and also established endurance records. John Montgomery became one of the most famous people in the world.
Montgomery continued to experiment with single and multi-wing aircraft. In October of 1911, Montgomery was flying in the Evergreen area of San Jose when his aircraft crashed and like Icarus, he died trying to fly. In 1946, a movie was made about Montgomery’s exploits called “Gallant Journey” starring Glenn Ford, Janet Blair and Charlie Ruggles.
John Montgomery was an inventor in many scientific fields. He invented a gold separator in 1901 which the Leonard family used at Manressa Beach. They were able to extract enough gold from the sand to afford to build the building in Aptos Village which now houses Café Sparrow.
Montgomery’s 1905 flight was commemorated and re-enacted on March 19, 2005 in Seascape Park as the “Centennial of Soaring Flight”. The event was hosted by the Aptos History Museum, the Aptos Chamber of Commerce, the Capitola/Aptos Rotary, and E Clampus Vitus. A monument was dedicated at the site of the flights. The monument is located at the eastern end of Dolphin Drive where it ends at the agricultural fields.
Craig Harwood, John Montgomery’s great grandnephew lives and works locally. He has written “Quest for Flight”, an award-winning book about Montgomery.