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Landmark in the Air PUBLIC ACCESS

125 Years Ago, John Montgomery Helped get the West Coast get off the Ground.

[+] Author Notes

Frank Wicks an ASME fellow and frequent contributor to Mechanical Engineering is a professor at Union College in Schenectady. N.Y. He is also a licensed pilot of gliders and powered aircraft.

Mechanical Engineering 130(08), 42-45 (Aug 01, 2008) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2008-AUG-5

This paper reviews contributions of John Montgomery toward controlled glider flight. It was recognized that a glider descending in still air is converting potential energy into motive power equal to the product of its weight and rate of sink. John Montgomery concluded that more basic research was needed. During the next few years, he designed an ingenious test apparatus in which water with suspended particles would flow around surfaces that represented various wing shapes. He also took photographs of the flow patterns. He was able to combine measurements, observations, and analysis. Montgomery had devised a technique to control pitch with a linkage to a pivoting tail section. The California Institute of Technology and other universities established advanced programs to support the increasingly challenging needs of the aircraft industry.

transportation was mostly limited to wind on the water and animals on land until Robert Fulton launched a prastical steambqat in 1807. Steam-powered railroads came next and enabled the settlement of the expanding United States from coast to Foast. Toward the end of the'19th century, some leading engineers and scientists were recognizing the possibilities for powered flight by machInes that were heavier than air. It could be the next frontier. These visionaries included Octave Chanute, Robert Thurston, and Samuel Pierpont Langley. Chanute had achieved fame as a designer of rail roads and bridges, and had used bridge construction principles to design a hang glider. In 1891, he star ted publishing a series of articles in Railroad and Engineering J ou rnal that would be coll ec ted in his book Progress in Flying Machines.

Thursto l1 was a leading engineer and educator. He had been the founding president of ASME in 1880 and was director of the Sibley School of Engineering at Cornell University. He had written the classic book about steam engines, A History of the Growth of the Steam-Engine, and was beginning to take an interest in flight as an engineering chaUenge. He concluded, in an 1884 review for the journal Science, that achieving powered flight was nearer than scientists generaUy supposed

Langley was an astronomer and would become the secretary of the Smithsonian Institute. He redirected his research toward flight after attending a session sponsored by Chanute during a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Buffalo in 1886.

Their conviction that powered flight was possible was enhanced by the reports and photographs of spectacular glider flights by the engineer Otto Lilienthal in Germany. The achievement and analysis of controlled glider flight was a major milestone in the pursuit of powered flight.

It was recognized that a glider descending in still air is converting potential energy into motive power equal to the product of its weight and rate of sink. For example, a modern high-performance glider and pilot may weigh 1,100 pounds and lose altitude at the rate of 5 feet per second. This means the glider could achieve level flight with a tow line that provides 5,500 foot-pounds per second of power, which corresp6nds -to-1 O,hp: :r):lls power could also be supplied by an efHcient propeller powered by a light engine. At the end of the 19th ceritury, the internal combustion engine was a developing technology with the potential of being much lighter than a steam engine.

Flight test: One of John Montgomery's later gliders, a tandem wing craft, made an unmanned flight in 1904 with a sandbag instead of a pilot. It was launched from a cliff and landed on Manressa Beach in santa Cruz Country, California.

Grahic Jump LocationFlight test: One of John Montgomery's later gliders, a tandem wing craft, made an unmanned flight in 1904 with a sandbag instead of a pilot. It was launched from a cliff and landed on Manressa Beach in santa Cruz Country, California.

Early aircraft: John Montgomery's drawings of his 1883 glider were reproduced in Victor Loughead's book, Vehicles of the Air, in 1910. Drawings were rendered by Loughead's draftsmen from originals, which have not survived.

Grahic Jump LocationEarly aircraft: John Montgomery's drawings of his 1883 glider were reproduced in Victor Loughead's book, Vehicles of the Air, in 1910. Drawings were rendered by Loughead's draftsmen from originals, which have not survived.

America's Glider Pilot

Chicago was hosting the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. It fe atured new wonders, ranging from a magnificent display of electric lights to a new amusement ride on a 250-foot-diameter wheel built by railroad and bridge engineer George Ferris.

Octave Chanute and his colleagues concluded that it was a good time and place to host an International Conference on Aerial Navigation. It was organized by a Notre Dame professo r, Albert Zahm, who had been astudent ofThurston's at Cornell.

The dream of flight has always produced many enthusias ts with unworkable inventions. Special care was taken to retain credibility by rejecting concepts that seemed too improbable or that cl early violated laws of nature. The resulting 40 papers that were accepted provided further evidence that practical human flight was achievable.

The conference attracted many visitors. One was the 35-year-old John James Montgomery, who had traveled from Californi a. He introduced himself to Chanute as America's only successful glider pilot.

Montgomery was born in California in 1858. His father was a prominent businessman, lawyer, and public offi cial. Like most flight enthusias ts, the young Montgomery was fascinated with birds and studi ed their flight. A bird was nature's way of showing humans that heavierthan- air flight is possible.

As a 10-year-old living in Oakland, he had observed a model dirigible called the Avitor. It was powered by a 1- hp steam engine. Its designer was Frederick Marriott, who had been born in England and had made the long move to San Francisco, where he established a publishing business. The easiest way to make the trip required sailing the long and treacherous route around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. Marriott's plan was to construct airships to provide coast-to-coast passenger service.The ship would travel freely over the wilderness, natural obstruction and dangers below. Montgomery responded by making his own model of the Avitor.

Montgomery studied physics, and received bachelor's and master's degrees from St. Ignatius CoUege in San Francisco. His family had traveled south to relocate on a ranch near San Diego, and Montgomery joined them to help manage operations. He built a shop there to perform electrical experiments, but soon turned his attention to flight.

When he heard about the glider flight, Chanute invited Montgomery to visit his Chicago home, where an assortment of models of flying machines hung from the ceiling. Montgomery explained to Chanute that he had built three gliders. Chanute would give his own description of Montgomery's first glider in his Progress in Flying Machines. According to Chanute, it weighed 40 pounds and had two lO-foot wings attached to a framework that carried the seat.

Montgomery had devised a technique to control pitch with a linkage to a pivoting tail section. Starting on Aug. 28, 1883, and with the assistance of his brother James, he made several flights of distances between 300 and 600 feet. Chanute described the glider as carrying Montgomery a distance of 100 feet, although a longer distance of 600 feet was also claimed.

After his next two gliders were less successful, Montgomery concluded that more basic research was needed. During the next few years, he designed an ingenious test apparatus in which water with suspended particles would flow around surfaces that represented various wing shapes. He also took photographs of the flow patterns. He was able to combine measurements, observation, and analysis.He confirmed that a wing with a varying curvature provided more lift than a flat palne wing.He wrote several papers describing these experiments and results.

In 1896, Montgomery took a faculty position at Santa Clara College, where he was also awarded a Ph.D.He made improvements on Marconi's radio and an electric rectifier.

He also continued his flight-related experiments. He built two more gliders in 1903. It was the same year that Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved powered flight.

Montgomery tried his hand at a kind of barnstorming. He recruited Daniel Maloney, a stunt man who had paraechuted from hot air balloons. Montgome;y trained' Malony to fly a glider launched from a cable suspended from a balloon. Maloney's first flight took place in March 1905.

It was a fundamentally treacherous operation. One of the risks was related to the need to transition from free fall to a controlled glide. Another was the subsequent maneuvering. Several spectacular flights were successfully performed and witnessed by large crowds. Then, in July, the glider became entangled in the lift rope, and Maloney crashed and died.

By 1911, powered flight had become common. Montgomery continued to experiment with a new glider design. He launched it by coasting down a hill at Evergreen on the outskirts of San Jose. He may have been planning on extending his machine to powered flight, but no one can say. He performed 55 flights before he died in a launching accident.

Aircraft builder: John Montgomery in his first tandem-wing glider,which was built early in 1904.the photo was taken in a vineyard at Santa Clara College, where he taught mathematics and kept a shop

Grahic Jump LocationAircraft builder: John Montgomery in his first tandem-wing glider,which was built early in 1904.the photo was taken in a vineyard at Santa Clara College, where he taught mathematics and kept a shop

The advent of practical flying machines led to years of litigation and controversy. The Wrights were awarded a patent on the three-axis control they devised for their 1902 glider with the claim that it was vital for controlled flight. Montgomery was awarded a patent that included wing curvature. He could also claim to have used a moving surface for pitch control two decades earlier, and that three-axis control was an obvious extension.

Orville Wright spent several years after the death of Wilbur in defense of claims by the heirs of Montgomery. Orville reconstructed the 1903 flyer as an exhibit to discredit the Montgomery claims. Orville's winning deposition of 1921 was later edited by his friend Fred Kelly into a short book titled How We Invented the Airplane. It provides a firsthand account and case study of their remarkable feat.

Ironically,the failed challenge by the Montgomery heirs allowed the Wrights' reputation to surpass that of their rival Langley over the invention of the powered airplane The first national aeronautical lab and first aircraft carrier were named in Langley's honor. The tandemwinged Langley Aerodrome, which had been built with government funding but had failed to achieve powered flight in 1903 was at one time featured-in the Smithsonian 'Institution as the first machine capable of power flight. Then, in 1947, Orville Wright succeeded in getting the Langley machine re, inoved and replaced by the 1903 Wright flyer. Despite the fatal accidents and courtroom losses, Montgomery's 28 years of experiments represented the start of the major aviation tradition on the West Coast of the United States. Young mechanics would design aircraft and start companies with now-familiar names. Victor Loughead and his half-brothers, Allan and Malcolm, were among the first to benefit from the work of Montgomery. Allan and Malcolm formed a company and later changed their name to Lockheed, which to American eyes would be a phonetic spelling of their Scottish surname.

Victor Loughead wrote a book in 1909, Vehicles of the Air. He also procured a Montgomery glider to convert to powered flight. Allan and Malcolm Loughead built a two-seat flying boat they flew over San Francisco Bay. Glenn Martin built his first air plane in 1909 and started his company in Los Angeles. Early employees were Donald Douglas, James McDonnell, and Larry Bell. Martin sold an airplane to William Boeing and gave him flying lessons. Boeing started making airplanes in his Seattle boatyard.

Charles Lindbergh traveled to San Diego in 1927 to oversee the construction of The Spirit of SI Louis at a company started by aircraft designer Claude Ryan. The airplane was named for the city where Lindbergh raised the money for his trans-Atlantic flight from local businessmen. The California company was the only one that would build the plane to Lindbergh's specifications and on his very short time schedule.

Ryan's factory was near the location of Montgomery's first glider flight of 44 years earlier. Lindbergh would test the plane with a record-breaking flight across the continent before making his nonstop flight from New York to Paris.

Howard Hughes moved from Texas to California to make a classic movie about World War I aviation, then built high-performance planes that he piloted at record speed across the continent and then around the world. Hughes also designed the very large seaplane dubbed the Spruce Goose, which he piloted for a brief flight.

The California Institute of Technology and other universities established advanced programs to support the increasingly challenging needs of the aircraft industry. Hungarian engineer and physicist Theodore von Karman was recruited as director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. The lab included wind tunnels and also a water tunnel similar to the apparatus that Montgomery had built to observe the flow around surfaces of various shapes.

John Montgomery's reputation in his native California continued to grow. A biographer called him the "The Father of Basic Flying." Many locations in California were named in his honor. His life became the basis for a 1947 movie called Gallant Journey, featuring Glenn Ford as Montgomery.

Replicas of Montgomery gliders are on display in museums in San Diego and at the San Carlos airport in the San Francisco Bay area. The 1883 glider has been recognized by ASME as an International Mechanical Engineering Landmark. A 90- foot wing monument marks the location of his 1883 flights

A granite obelisk on the Santa Clara University campus marks the spot where his 1905 glider was raised by a balloon. William Adams, a 1937 alumnus of Santa Claraand an ASME Fellow, has worked long and effectively to assure that Montgomery's accomplishments are duly recognized beyond California.

Montgomery has also been inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Day ton, Ohio, and the Soaring Hall of Fame in Elmira, N.Y.

Gliding 600 feet isn't considered remarkable at all today. But it was a memorable achievement when Montgomery first got off the ground, 125 years ago this month.

Copyright © 2008 by ASME
Topics: Flight , Aircraft , Wings
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