Slow travel at its best:
You’ll find the grassy hill at Montgomery Waller Community Park Recreation Center where you can see the skyline of Tijuana or linger at the playground. It’s a great place to take the kids and also, this mesa was once home to the Kumeyaay who preferred to live on hilltops, further away from the flood plains. They would then walk down to the Pacific Ocean to fish and collect shellfish.
It was also on this breezy hill that John J. Montgomery took man’s first controlled flight, gliding 600 feet through the air before landing. He did it 19 years before Kitty Hawk.
According to writer Jeff Smith, the hill was chosen for its gentle ten-degree slope. Dry vegetation and loamy earth would soften the landing. On the day scientist John J. Montgomery took off at Otay Mesa, the early morning breeze blew seven miles per hour.
Apparently, there were no eyewitnesses.
Montgomery didn’t report his success to newspapers or to the neighbors. As a consequence, what he actually did is still subject to debate. One scholar called it mankind’s first heavier-than-air controlled flight, while a critic said that the gilder’s 90 square foot of wing area needed much stronger winds to carry 168 pounds as far as Montgomery claimed.
Who Was John J. Montgomery?
Born in 1858 in Yuba City, California, Montgomery is said to have been intrigued by cloud movement and the flight of birds as a young child. This curiosity led him into an intense interest in aerodynamics. He studied science at Saint Ignatius College (the forerunner of the University of San Francisco).
In 1882, he was living with his family at their farm near Fruitland and began using the barn for a laboratory. The next year, he chose the hill on Otay Mesa to do his flight experiments.
Why The Hoopla?
At Otay Mesa and later also in Rohnerville and Santa Clara, Montgomery did many flight experiments and designed many different flight machines.
During his lifetime, the Wright brothers flew a motor-propelled craft at Kitty Hawk in 1903. That was the difference in flight: Montgomery never designed a plane with an engine, so the Wright brothers got the credit for being the first ones to fly.
Although Montgomery considered himself to be a scientist, not a pilot, he flew his machines as well. During the last two weeks of October 1911, he and mechanic Joseph Vierra combined for 55 successful flights at Evergreen, a camp in the foothills five miles south of San Jose, California.
The craft was also called Evergreen and was a sleek monoplane glider with a cambered wing, four-wheeled undercarriage, bucket seat, and yoke-control stick. It was supposed to be the prototype for Montgomery’s first engine-powered aircraft.
He flew Evergreen on October 31 and the nose flared oddly upward. Montgomery shifted his weight forward for stability. Less than 20 feet in the air, the craft stalled, then swerved and fanned to the right. The wingtip hit the ground. Evergreen landed upside down.
It seemed like a benign accident, but when the onlookers approached, including Montgomery’s wife, they saw blood and grey matter oozing behind Montgomery’s right ear. The landing had thrown him sideways and a 45-cent stove-bolt came loose and punctured his brain.
His last words before losing consciousness was, “How is the machine?”
The Community Made It Happen
In a 1950’s a group of passionate South Bay community activists erected this monument. There is a plaque on the hill today as well as a silver test wing panel from a Consolidated B-32 Dominator.
A plaque says the dedication took place on May 21, 1950. It reads: “Erected by the San Diego Junior Chamber of Commerce Montgomery Memorial Committee.”
Several interesting corporations are listed as contributors, including Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corp, National Steel and Shipbuilding Corp, Astra Flooring Co, California Electric Works, W.G. Ehmcke Sheet Metal Works, Columbia Pictures Corp and Western Air Lines.
Several individuals are also named, notably the Montgomery family as well as John Hettich. John Hettich was a journalist whose letters about John J. Montgomery still exist in the archives of the San Diego Air & Space Museum. The museum also houses extensive records on John J. Montgomery.
John Hettich was married to Joyce, a long-time resident of San Ysidro. Rumor has it that she spent many years collecting as much information as possible about Montgomery and then either donated the materials to the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum (they’ve never heard of the collection) or her collection was thrown away. It’s likely she also helped to make this commemoration happen and you can find out more about her on my website: Friends of San Ysidro.
Today, several South Bay schools are named after the inventor, including John J. Montgomery Elementary School in Chula Vista, 3 Montgomery Middle Schools in San Diego County and Montgomery Senior High School. A section of Interstate 5 freeway is also named in his honor.
Where: Montgomery Waller Community Park Recreation Center, 3020 Coronado Avenue, San Diego
Recommended Reading: First in the Air: The story of John J. Montgomery’s flight 19 years before Kitty Hawk by Jeff Smith is a brief look.
Quest for Flight: John J. Montgomery and the Dawn of Aviation in the West by Craig S. Harwood and Gary B. Fogel is a comprehensive book about the topic.
Recommended Movie: Gallant Journey (1946). From IMDb: Director William A. Wellman adds another to his long line of salutes-to-aviation films in this bio of an aviation pioneer, John Montgomery (Glenn Ford.) In 1883 he built a practical glider despite the opposition of his friends, who thought he was crazy, and of his family, who were afraid that his dreams of flying would hurt his father’s political ambitions. He pursues his education at Santa aboutClara University where the Jesuits lend a helping and understanding hand. An earthquake destroys what appears to be a working model for an airplane, but a gold-sorting machine Montgomery invented, and then neglected, promises to provide for his financial needs to keep working on his aircraft until he gets involved in costly lawsuits defending his invention.