Home > Donald H. Harrison, historic places, Mexico > San Diego’s Historic Places: John J. Montgomery Monument

San Diego’s Historic Places: John J. Montgomery Monument


John J. Montgomery Monument, Otay Mesa area of San Diego

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—Large enough to be seen from vantage points across the border in Mexico, the wing of a World War II era Liberator bomber stands upright on the hill in Otay Mesa where some historians say pioneer aviator John J. Montgomery made the first controlled flight on a glider ever made in the United States.

The flight reportedly occurred August 28, 1883, two decades before the Wright Brothers made their first powered flight, but Montgomery’s achievement wasn’t recorded until the 1894 publication of Progress in Flying Machines, a compendium of aeronautical achievements compiled by the engineer Octave Chanute.  As there were no independent witnesses of the flight, other aeronautical historians have expressed doubts about the feat.

The pioneers of aviation—including Montgomery and the Wright Brothers—conducted their testing in great secrecy in order to be the first to bring their inventions to the patent office, so it is not surprising that only relatives claimed to be witnesses to the 600-foot flight Montgomery made in a flying machine with curved wings.

Montgomery’s brother, Jim, described the event as follows:  “I towed John into the air in his little glider at the end of a 40 foot rope.  He flew over my head and landed beautifully about six hundred feet down the hill.”

At 90 feet high, the wing which now towers over the recreation center at Montgomery-Waller Park in the Otay Mesa area of San Diego is fully 15 percent as long as Montgomery’s first flight.   The monument dedicated in 1950 was created by architect Lloyd Ruocco, who also designed such well- known landmarks in the City of San Diego as the County Administration Building between Harbor Drive and Pacific Coast Highway, and the Civic Theatre at 3rd Avenue at B Street.  The wing commemorating Montgomery’s first flight was in itself a piece of San Diego history, as Consolidated Aircraft  in San Diego manufactured the B-24s.

Montgomery-Waller Park is named both for the pioneer aviator as well as for Luckie Waller, who donated the land for the park and for whom the local Little League is named. The park is one of several places named for John J. Montgomery, with others being the nearby Montgomery High School and Montgomery Middle School in the Sweetwater Union High School District, Montgomery Elementary School in Chula Vista, and another Montgomery Middle School in the San Diego Unified School District.   More closely related to Montgomery’s aeronautical achievements is Montgomery Field, a general aviation airport in the Kearny Mesa area of San Diego.

In 1962, ceremonies at the unusual looking monument included flyovers by antique and contemporary aircraft, a performance by a local Navy band, and an exhibit of a replica of the glider in which he flew.

The inscription at the site reads: “John J. Montgomery Made Man’s First Controlled Winged Flight From This Hilltop in August 1883. He opened for all mankind the great highway of the sky”

Consolidated Vultee Aircraft’s successor, Consolidated Vultee (which later became known as Convair) and Columbia Pictures were among the corporate sponsors of the Ruocco-designed monument.

Montgomery’s life was chronicled in the 1946 Columbia Picture Gallant Journey, directed by William Wellman and starring Glenn Ford as Montgomery and Janet Blair as Ginny Cleary, the woman who believed in him.   Paul Mantz was the stunt pilot for that film.   Surprisingly, although the film dramatizes a San Diego historical event, none of the public or university libraries in the county listed Gallant Journey in their catalogues as of mid-June 2010.  The biopic can be found, however, in the Santa Clara library.

Although the first flight in San Diego is covered in Gallant Journey, a larger portion of the film deals with Montgomery’s achievements in the Santa Clara area where, while serving on the faculty of Santa Clara College,  he continued to experiment with controlled flight.

Montgomery’s test pilot Daniel John Maloney would ascend in a tandem-winged glider named the Santa Clara that was tethered to a hot air balloon, then upon release, would glide to a safe landing on the ground from 3,900 feet.  However, during one demonstration in 1905 a handling line became tangled in the wings, and Maloney died in the crash.

In 1911, Montgomery personally tested a monoplane glider called the Evergreen, making approximately 50 flights of perhaps 780 feet each.  On October 31, 1911, from only an altitude of 20 feet, the glider crashed, causing Montgomery’s head to slam into an exposed bolt.  He died two hours later at age 53.

In San Jose, Montgomery Hill is named for the aviator as is Montgomery Elementary School in that city.  A Kent Roberts sculpture of a 30-foot glider wing was dedicated in 2008 in a 32-foot diameter plaza at the intersection of Yerba Buena and San Felipe Roads.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

  1. Donna Wallace
    February 28, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    The land where the Montgomery Monument stands was not donated by Lucky Waller, it was purchased from George & Isabel Wallace by eminet domain (for flat land price) Mr Waller donated the land to the north and east in memory of his son.

  2. william krumholz
    August 26, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    There is no Pacific Coast Highway in San Diego ! the correct name of this Highway is Pacific Highway

  3. William Propsner
    July 17, 2014 at 11:41 am

    I remember the ‘Wing’ when I was a kid when my parents lived in Imperial Beach. We also lived on Otay Mesa, back then it was called ‘Hobart Heights’. When we would go to the beach, we’d pass by the ‘Wing’. I always looked for it. I always thought it was from a ‘glider’.

  4. Dan
    October 6, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    I don’t know how you got the information that the Montgomery sculpture was from a B-24, but is not. In fact, it is the only remaining piece in existence of it’s larger brother, the Consolidated B-32 “Dominator”, a competitor to the Boeing B-29.

  5. June 16, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    A definitive biography on John J. Montgomery is now available at :

  1. June 22, 2010 at 1:54 pm

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