In 1883, twenty years before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, John J. Montgomery, 26, ran with his “soaring machine” to the edge of a mesa. He stepped into the void, a wind off the Pacific Ocean lifted his wings, and he made the first controlled flight in America – at least 600 feet by some estimates.
As a child Montgomery had studied birds, even scared his grandmother’s geese in the backyard to see how they flapped their wings when taking off. When he made the successful flight, one of several that day, Montgomery devoted the rest of his life to studying the “science of the bird.” The more he learned, and the more he became labeled a madman, the more he kept to himself, trying to maintain the utmost secrecy about his discoveries. Between 1883 and 1905, he filled hundreds of notebooks – “endless problems worked out to the feather-edge of an infinitesimal fraction” – and experimented with different models of gliders (he was the first to refer to a whole aircraft as an “aeroplane”).
In 1905, Montgomery finally took his inventions public at the University of Santa Clara, where he became professor of physics in 1896. Two attempts, performed by large audiences, failed so gravely that the ever-wary Montgomery suspected sabotage. “If I should be beaten by others in my problem, it would kill me,” he wrote several years earlier. He became convinced that those “others” had murder in their hearts. Montgomery went further inward.
In 1911, at a time when motorized planes flew in air shows, Montgomery stuck to his study of the glider. In October, after 55 successful flights in the foothills south of San Jose, his sleek monoplane made a bumpy landing. The crash didn’t look severe - the nose just flared upward before coming down – but it was.
Of Montgomery’s 1905 attempts, Alexander Graham Bell said” “All subsequent attempts in aviation must begin with the Montgomery machine.”