West Coast connection to early aviation
By Lou Fancher
The alchemy of early aviation is half science, half circus.
Blending validated aeronautic facts and gutsy vaudeville-like acts in a historical narrative, co-authors Craig S. Harwood and Gary Fogel delve into the life and times of an overlooked California inventor in a new book, “Quest for Flight: John J. Montgomery and the Dawn of Aviation in the West.”
In a free Walnut Creek Foundation Live! program March 8, Harwood entertained an audience with a PowerPoint presentation and lively stories about Montgomery, his great grand-uncle.
Born in Yuba City, Montgomery was an early aviation pioneer, professor at Santa Clara College and best known for his designs of heavier-than-air, controlled flying machines.
“Originally, a research paper was my idea,” said Harwood, in answer to a question about the process of writing the book. “I sent Gary all the information and I could see from what he sent back that he knew how to organize it. But as we got into it, we realized we had to bring all the human elements into it. The story was so much fun, with all the great characters and crazy exploits, it made for a natural book.”
Through an eight-year process of primary research and materials sent back and forth between Harwood, an engineering geologist, and Fogel, an author and computer science firm CEO, the publication was built. The book also includes archival photographs, Montgomery’s diagrams, and a list of his patents.
Attention has been erroneously but understandably dominated by the Wright brothers and Kitty Hawk, N.C., according to Harwood. Indeed, Montgomery’s experiments with controlling heavier-than-air craft began in the 1880s, a good 20 years prior to the Wright’s much-heralded first-powered flight in 1903.
“So many visionaries of the time just fell off by the wayside,” Harwood said, attributing the Wright brother’s fame in the 1900s as much to showmanship and backdating as to successful science.
Providing a vivid account of Montgomery’s life that included studying seagulls near the family’s fruit farm in San Diego and scaling up their wing support for early gliders he constructed, Harwood emphasized his ancestor’s enthusiasm for invention.
“He was experimenting with chemicals, electricity, physics, mechanical engineering, astronomy.”
A clip from a Columbia Pictures biographical film made in 1946 showed Montgomery in a glider being pulled by his son, who held a thick rope and ran through tall grass until the glider became airborne, flew 50 feet and crashed. Harwood called the flight “successful.”
The book — and Harwood’s presentation to a lesser extent — tells as much about California history and culture during the late 1800s and early 1900s as it does about Montgomery and aviation. Included are people like Jeanette Van Tassel, the first famous female balloonist and Thomas Scott Baldwin, an aerial exhibitionist and self-promoter.
Because much of Montgomery’s adult life was lived in Santa Clara, information about local sites, events and people adds connection. There are details about Montgomery’s lift, propeller and wing theories, along with other technical subjects, as well as human drama. Montgomery died at 53 in a gliding accident, was inducted in 2002 into the U.S. Soaring Hall of Fame, and received other posthumous honors.
“The Bay Area is the cradle of aviation,” Harwood said. Along with that, he said libraries are essential in preserving history and stories like that of Montgomery. “If it weren’t for libraries, my book would be two covers and empty pages, so thank you to the library foundation for hosting me.”