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What are Your Favorite Aerospace History Conspiracy Theories?

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We have been discussing at the National Air and Space Museum the possibility of pursuing an educational workshop on the place of conspiracy theories in modern America, especially as it relates to aerospace history but also in the broader context of our national history. Does it hold any interest for you? If we go forward with this idea it will be focused on teaching critical thinking and analysis of evidence. What do you think of this possibility?

Of course, as a society we embrace ideas of conspiracy as an explanation of how and why many events have happened all the time. Conspiracies play to our innermost fears and hostilities that there is a well-organized, well-financed, and Machiavellian design being executed by some malevolent group, the dehumanized “them,” which seek to rob “us” of something we hold dear.

Conspiracy theories abound in American history. Oliver Stone’s film, J.F.K., shows how receptive Americans are to believing that Kennedy was killed as a result of a massive conspiracy variously involving Fidel Castro; American senior intelligence and law enforcement officers; high communist leaders in the Soviet Union; union organizers; organized crime; and perhaps even the Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson. Stone’s film only brought the assassination conspiracy to a broad American public. For years amateur and not-so-amateur researchers have been churning out books and articles about the Kennedy assassination conspiracy. It has been one of the really significant growth industries in American history during the last 45 years.

Numerous other instances of significant movements in American history have also been motivated at least in part by the possibility of conspiracy. The anti-Masonic crusade in the early nineteenth century was prompted by a fear that Masons were conspiring to overthrow the government and establish a totalitarian state in which they were supreme. Near the same time an anti-Catholic effort arose to fight a perceived “papal conspiracy” to take over the U.S. The Populist movement of the 1890s was predicated in part on a belief that there was a grand conspiracy of business interests in the East who sought to subjugate farmers by setting prices and making them dependent on “moneyed interests.” Some have argued that in 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt manipulated events in the Pacific to provoke the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor so he could join the Allies in a war against Nazi Germany. More recently, some argue that there is a conspiracy of scientists, politicians, and others to convince the world of global warming and thereby force changes in the economy and lifestyle. There is a counter-conspiracy that a well-organized conspiracy exists to defeat belief in global warming and thereby ensure that nothing of significance changes.

If we were to go forward with an educational program relating to aerospace conspiracies and their place in our history, I would ask for your list of major conspiracy theories in air and space. I will start with my list. Please understand that I do not specifically subscribe to any of these theories. What do you think of them? What else would you add? What do you think does not need to be discussed? I welcome your thoughts.

Here is my list of major aerospace conspiracies:

    • The Wright brothers were not the first to fly—small numbers of advocates argue that Alberto Santos-Dumont, John Joseph Montgomery, or some other experimenter was actually first and that a conspiracy—who is involved in the conspiracy is idiosyncratic—exists to keep the truth from the public.
    • Amelia Earhart did not die in a Pacific plane crash in 1937—she was really an American spy captured by the Japanese or she suffered some other such nefarious end.
    • Denials of the Moon landings—a small but vocal group insists that humans have never landed on the Moon and that the U.S. government is lying to us about it.
Saturn V

The Launch of a Saturn V during the Apollo program. Some believe humans never landed on the Moon.

    • Extraterrestrials are visiting Earth, and have been since at least 1947 at the time of the “Roswell Incident”—advocates claim that the government knows the truth of this but denies the allegations. This is a broad area that includes Area 51, alien spacecraft, extraterrestrial bodies, and perhaps even live aliens residing in the U.S. while the government is withholding this truth.
Face On Mars

This image was taken at Mars by NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter in 1976. It caused a sensational speculation that it was an artificial construct built by an intelligent civilization on Mars.

    • The face on Mars—the Viking orbiter in 1976 took a single photograph of a part of the Martian surface that appeared to look like a human face staring up toward the sky. NASA insists it looks this way because of light and shadow on a hillside but conspiracy theorists belief that this is part of a cover-up to keep the truth of alien life on Mars quiet.
  • The 9/11 attacks by airplane into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were staged by government agents because…the reasons given are broad and often shocking.
  • The Apollo 1 astronauts killed on January 27, 1967, were eliminated by NASA dirty deeds to keep them from revealing…choose the secret of your choice.
  • The Air Force has a super secret spaceplane, the Aurora, which flies military missions into orbit on a regular basis.
  • Contrails from highflying aircraft are actually chemical or biological agents deliberately sprayed at high altitudes for some nefarious purpose undisclosed to the general public.

    Face on Mars

    A later image from Mars Global Surveyor showing the same hill that supposedly had a human face.

  • The Bermuda Triangle—a region in the western part of the Caribbean bounded roughly by Miami, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico—is a place where presumably a mysterious force makes aircraft and surface vessels disappear and the U.S. government is lying about it.

Do you have other conspiracy theories relating to air and space history that we might discuss?

Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

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20 thoughts on “What are Your Favorite Aerospace History Conspiracy Theories?

  1. Thank you for posting this interesting idea. As you mentioned, Americans have for the longest time been fearful of dark conspiracies at work in the shadows. You have mentioned some of my favorites, but I recently came across two other ones that illustrate how farfetched, but yet thoroughly constructed these theories can be:
    - The Satanic Aerospace Conspiracy Scrapbook (http://www.theflatearthsociety.org/forum/index.php?topic=30418.0)
    - The Denver Airport Conspiracy (http://newsflavor.com/opinions/mystery-surrounding-denver-international-airport/)

    Good luck with your program!

  2. From my perspective as a docent, I think this is a neat idea. I could see an educational program on conspiracy theories dovetailing nicely with many objects on docent tours- like Amelia’s Vega. I just think NASM would have to be careful not to be to heavy-handed with the presentation.

  3. I lie every seconds of the days.
    same think : conspiracy theories = a conspiracy !

    where is the truth ?

    @astro-notes

  4. Actually, now that you mention a Wright Brothers conspiracy, there were eye-witness reports that Richard Pearce, in New Zealand, made the first powered flight some 9 months before the Wright Brothers. However, Pearce and his witnesses kept no records that have survived and, while there is no doubt that he *did* make a powered flight, the date is not confirmed. So the achievement officially goes to the Wright Brothers, and New Zealanders have no problem with that.
    Good luck with your programme, but I have to ask, why bother? You will only be feeding the egos of the conspiracy theorists, who would be delighted to receive official recognition of their … idiosyncracies … from the Smithsonian.

  5. This one didn’t involve a plane at all . . .

    The 9/11 Family Steering Committee, the group that forced the 9/11 Commission to happen, has published many of their unanswered questions on their website, 911independentcommission.org, and one of their questions was this:

    13. On 9/11, no aircraft hit WTC 7. Why did the building fall at 5:20 PM that evening?

    Most people who take a look at the video of WTC 7 “falling” tend to come away with a lot questions. Go ahead and look at a video of it, just google WTC7.

    Currently, over 1200 architectural and engineering professionals and almost 9000 others have signed a petition demanding of Congress an independent investigation — beyond what the 9/11 Commission provided and beyond the NIST Reports because they have a lot of questions about how the buildings managed to collapse down the path of most resistance into micron sized dust particles despite most of the structures being untouched by fire or impact, particularly Building 7, which was never hit by an airplane at all.

    Do you have questions?

  6. I love the topic!!! and yes the Wright Brother story is a conspiracy… Icarus was the first man to fly :P :P you have also forgotten the Echelon conspiracy… which proves that Echelon is really a conspiracy :P :P :P LOL

  7. Same as Bruce: I would not put on the same level, the so called “Wright conspiracy” which could be reversed in any other country (not only New Zealand) as “the conspiracy of United States to pretend Wright were the first fly” and other extravagances which are only supported by a minority of crank individuals. Smithsonian has certainly more serious missions to fulfill than just collecting statistics about the number of nutcases in the country.

  8. I think you left out a truly important one that involves yourselves. The conspiracy of revisionist historians to claim the United States as aggressors and the Japanese as victims in WWII, specifically surrounding the Atomic Bomb and Enola Gay. I know noone at the Smithsonian likes to think back on that gaffe, but for completeness, it has to be included.

  9. I think the Human Error that lead to the demise of the Mars Global Surveyor is a conspiracy…The update containing the errors that ultimately proved a kill-switch, was uploaded only after pictures of strange formations and other anomolies on the martian surface started to be seen by the general public…Those glass tubes, tree like formations, etc.

  10. I like the conspiracy theory that NASA has hidden photos taken of an alien space port on the opposite side of our moon. Alas, no credible photos have been revealed yet.

  11. The Smithsonian Institution continues to dismiss the early aeronautical scientist and engineer John Joseph Montgomery by declaring (in your words) that “small numbers of advocates argue that … John Joseph Montgomery … was actually first and that a conspiracy … exists to keep the truth from the public.” Just who is keeping the truth from the public?
    The American Society of Mechanical Engineers has recognized the pioneering work of John Joseph Montgomery: “[The] 1883 flight of Montgomery’s glider was the first manned, controlled flight of a heavier-than-air machine in history. It preceded by some 10 years the famous glider flights of Otto Lilienthal, and by 20 years the historic powered flights of the Wright brothers. … By proceeding scientifically and performing his own experimental and analytical studies, he was able to make fundamental advancements in the areas of lift generation and flight structures, as well as in the interrelated areas of stability and control. … Montgomery was the first to incorporate successfully the wing airfoil parabolic shape in a heavier-than-air man-carrying aircraft. His glider also had its stabilizing and control surfaces at the rear of the aircraft, the placement of which was unique at that time and which anticipated modern aircraft design” (from John Joseph Montgomery – 1883 Glider, An International Mechanical Engineering Landmark Designated by ASME International, May 11, 1996).
    One would expect more from an Institution explicitly founded by the British scientist James Smithson for the “increase and diffusion” of knowledge.

  12. Mr. Burdick,

    Californian John Joseph Montgomery (1858-1911) was indeed the first American to make a flight with a fixed wing glider, and perhaps the fifth individual in the world to do so. A careful study of the original documents reveals that Montgomery’s single first glide from Otay Mesa, south of San Diego, occurred in 1884, however, not 1883. The earliest account of that flight, which Montgomery read and apparently approved, gave the length of the glide as 100 feet and noted that there was no control other than weight shifting, a dangerous technique that led to the death of several gliding pioneers. Suffering an accident during his second glide, Montgomery returned to ground-based flight research. Whether any of the other Montgomery gliders of this early period which were described decades later were ever built and tested in unclear. If so, they had little impact on the experimenter’s subsequent work. The Californian made headlines over two decades later with a series of exhibition flights in which his pilot, acrobat and parachute jumper Daniel Maloney, ascended aboard a tandem wing glider dangling beneath a hot air balloon, cutting loose at altitude to spiral back to earth. Maloney died in a crash with that glider in July 1905. Montgomery himself died testing yet another glider on October 31, 1911. The National Air and Space Museum’s collection includes one wing from a 1905-era Montgomery glider, and the restored Evergreen glider in which the experimenter himself was killed. Living in the relative isolation of Southern California, John Montgomery knew next to nothing about the state of flying machine experiments in other parts of the world. While he was not the first experimenter to discover the lifting power of the cambered wing, or the importance of an elevator at the rear of the machine, he made those discoveries independently. Surely no one would question the ingenuity required to design and build a glider at such an early date, or the courage required to make that first leap off the crest of Otay Mesa. Because his work was unknown to other experimenters before 1894, however, he had no significant influence on the individuals who took the final steps toward the invention of the airplane.

    Tom Crouch
    Senior Curator, Aeronautics
    National Air and Space Museum

  13. I would like to thank the Senior Curator, Dr. Tom Crouch, for his thoughtful response to my posting and for the kind words he expressed concerning John Montgomery’s ingenuity and courage. I would be remiss, however, if I did not clarify some misconceptions still held by many, now 100 years since his untimely passing this month (at the age of 53, while he was readying his craft for the inclusion of a motor). Had he lived, early aviation history in the United States would have taken a much different and more constructive course.
    Montgomery performed his first flight on August 28, 1883, not 1884 as stated by Victor Lougheed in his excellent book “Vehicles of the Air” (1911). There is much stronger evidence for the year 1883 (see Arthur Dunning Spearman’s biography, “John Joseph Montgomery, Father of Basic Flying.”). Indeed, John’s brother James, who assisted on the first flight in 1883 at Otay Mesa in San Diego, would not have been available in 1884 since he entered Santa Clara College that year.
    Regarding the length of the flight, it was Octave Chanute, in his book “Progress in Flying Machines” (1894), who incorrectly gave the distance as 100 feet. There is no evidence, as you surmise, that “Montgomery read and apparently approved” this figure and I doubt that Chanute was in the habit of having others proofread his writings. (For first-person documentation of this see Spearman, where he describes how Montgomery’s brother, James, stepped off the flight distance at the original site during the dedication of the monument to Montgomery in Otay Mesa–and found it to be 603 feet.) After this first flight Montgomery made many additional flights, experimenting with flat wing designs that convinced him that his initial cambered wing design was best. He then spent the next several years performing fundamental research in aerodynamics to determine why this was the case. According to Victor Lougheed, “Of even greater importance than his experimental demonstrations have been Professor Montgomery’s profound researches in aerodynamics.”
    The statement that John Montgomery “knew next to nothing about the state of flying machine experiments in other parts of the world” is unsubstantiated. Unfortunately, since all of his models and research notes were washed away in the Otay dam break in the winter of 1915-1916, we are at a loss to know all that he knew. We do know that he participated in many conferences and “Meets” and early on shared his ideas with others at the invitation of Octave Chanute when he presented a paper at the International Conference on Aerial Navigation in Chicago, August 1-4, 1893, describing in detail his experiments and theories on aerodynamics. He also corresponded extensively with Chanute over the years (who then divulged Montgomery’s ideas to the Wright brothers without his permission [see Exhibit 2 below]). Chanute was also responsible for persuading Montgomery not to file a patent on his ideas as Montgomery was planning to do after the Conference.  Chanute convinced him that it was every man’s duty to his country to help America find the solution to flight. He believed patents at this time would delay that discovery and be unpatriotic. (Chanute was unable to convince the Wrights of this.) At the time, Montgomery agreed with Chanute since he wanted to share his discovery of the parabolic wing with others. In fact, on August 13, 1899 he wrote a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Examiner offering his services to whomever wanted to learn to fly: “In your issue of July 30th I have noted an encouraging offer to those engaged in the study of aeronautics, and I heartily commend your efforts to have the problem solved in this century. … I would be pleased to aid by the knowledge that years of experiment and analytical study have given me. …” In response to a question about why he decided to patent his aeroplane when he eventually did, Montgomery responded that it would permit him to “use his own invention without hindrance” (from the Wright patent suits) [see Exhibit 1 below].
    It is arguable, as you conjecture, that “he had no significant influence on the individuals who took the final steps toward the invention of the airplane.” His research and theories were well in advance of the other experimenters of the time. Alexander Klemin, an aeronautical engineer and head of the Aeronautics Dept. at MIT provided this assessment of Montgomery’s achievements (on December 20, 1919): “It is really extraordinary how much Montgomery knew of the fundamental principles of aerodynamics at this early stage. He possessed substantially a great deal of the knowledge which we do after lengthy and refined investigations. … The following sentence in his patent is also worthy of note: ‘A wing is a specially formed surface placed in such a position as to develop a rotary movement in the surrounding air.’ The presence of this rotary movement is not, as a rule, known to even experienced engineers, although such eminent men as Kutta, Jukowski, Prandtl, and Lanchester have deduced its presence from theoretical considerations. Vortices have been photographed in a newly constructed tunnel at McCook Field, and vortices can be clearly seen at high-speed flow. Montgomery also speaks of an ascending current of air immediately in front of the wing surface. We know that this exists and provides suction on the upper surface of the wing. He states also that this ascending tendency is greatest at the center and gradually diminishes at the tips; … It is for this reason also that wings are narrowed down at the edges, as Montgomery has done in his patent. And in this as in other features, Montgomery shows a precocious knowledge of the art.”
    In a conversation with the Wright brothers at the October 22-31, 1910 “Belmont Meet” held at the Belmont race track on Long Island, John Montgomery informed them of the complex turns and maneuvers his pilots could perform with his machines (which was well documented and witnessed by thousands, going back to 1905). Orville (in a letter to Thomas S. Baldwin dated November 13, 1911, two weeks after Montgomery’s death) was dumfounded, stating, “Montgomery was a hard man to understand. … (He) told us in perfect seriousness that the control of his machine was so great that the ‘boys’ … were looping the loop time after time … Of course there was no doubt in our minds as to whether his statement should be believed, but it was hard to tell as to whether the statement was a result of an illusion, or whether it was simply a plain falsehood.” Orville’s incredulity is quite understandable since the Wright aeroplanes were notoriously unstable and difficult to control, resulting in the deaths of many aeronauts, even up to the present day (AP, July 30, 2011: “2 Killed in Ohio When Wright Replica Plane Crashes”). The dismissal of Montgomery’s achievements appears to have started early–and unfortunately was detrimental to the safety and progress of early aviation.
    John Montgomery was a true polymath, being actively involved in such diverse fields as aerodynamics, electricity, telegraphy and astronomy. In addition to his patent on the “Aeroplane” (1906, worth $1,750,000 to the White Motor Co. but unfulfilled when he died), he was also awarded patents for “Devulcanizing and Restoring Vulcanized Rubber” (1884); for a “Petroleum Burner” (1895); for a “Concentrator” (1903, for separating gold based on differences in specific gravity); for a means for “Rectifying Electric Currents” (1910, a highly efficient means for recharging storage batteries that he sold to the San Francisco Gas and Electric Company for $500,000); and for a “Process for Compelling Electric Motors to Keep in Step with the Waves or Impulses of the Current Driving Them” (1910). While a professor at Santa Clara College, he was instrumental in setting up and calibrating the telescopes for astronomer, meteorologist and seismologist Jerome Ricard (the “Padre of the Rains,” who correlated sunspot activity with weather on the Earth). Also, since he “possessed a rare mechanical skill and proved most ingenious in constructing the complicated apparatus,” he provided technical assistance to Professor Richard H. Bell in his improvements to Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless invention. (Bell, a first cousin of Alexander Graham Bell, was the first scientist on the West Coast to send a wireless voice message, in 1904.) Incredibly, in their experiments they employed a Black Locust tree as an antenna, electrified to 1 million volts at 200 kHz. Bell patented his improvements in 1928 and was praised by Marconi in a visit to Santa Clara University in 1933 for his “valuable and original methods.” Montgomery also worked on the invention of a system for sending and receiving telegraph messages with a typewriter (termed a “Telautoprint”), subsequent to an employment at the US Wireless Printing Company.
    It is unfortunate–and a disservice to the history of aerodynamics and aeronautics–that the pioneering work and accomplishments of John J. Montgomery are consistently dismissed or denied. All too often falsehoods are passed down as truths without proper research or documentation. There is ample evidence of his foresight and contributions.
    _________________________________________________________________
    Exhibit 1: Chanute’s advice to Montgomery on Patenting:
    From Professor J. J. Montgomery’s address before the members of The Aeronautical Society (New York) on April 21, 1910 entitled The Origin of “Warping” (published in Aeronautics, May 1910, pages 63-64): “In concluding his talk, Professor Montgomery gave credit to the other pioneers, Langley, Chanute and Zahm. He said: We have given our work for the good of mankind and we want to see mankind benefit, and we deprecate the idea of anybody monopolising the subject. Right here is one thing I want to state, Mr. Chanute is a patriot, and I remember well the words he said to me in 1893. We held long conferences at his residence. I had developed the principle of warping. I was rather slow in making it known to Mr. Chanute. I gave him to understand that I had developed certain ideas regarding equilibrium that I wished to patent. Then Mr. Chanute said to me he did not believe anyone should take out patents on any devices because he said this was a problem of humanity. No one man was going to solve it. All should lend their work to the solution of this great problem and anyone taking out patents might interfere with the progress of the science. When Mr. Chanute expressed himself that way to me I saw the full truth of what he said, and appreciated it. Then for the first time I made known to him the device by which I controlled the lateral equilibrium, the warping.
    “In reply to a question, as to why Mr. Chanute and himself did take out patents, Prof. Montgomery said that while patents are generally considered a form of monopoly, there is another side to the question. A patent is a protection to the inventor permitting him to use his own invention without hindrance.”

    Exhibit 2: Chanute’s Correspondences with Montgomery and the Wrights:
    (See Spearman. JJM=Montgomery; OC=Chanute; WW, OW=Orville, Wilbur Wright.)
    OC to JJM, April 4, 1905: “I am glad to note from newspaper accounts that you have achieved great success in some flying machine experiments.”
    OC to WW, April 4, 1905 (first mention of Montgomery’s work): “I enclose an account of a bold performance in California. I will write to Montgomery for particulars.”
    JJM to OC, April 11, 1905: “You can hardly know the pleasure it gives me at this time to hear from you, who manifested such kindness and courtesy to me, when I met you in Chicago.“ [Letter consists of 14 paragraphs describing his experiments, machines and future plans.]
    WW to OC, April 12, 1905: “Mr. Montgomery seems to have achieved a notable performance, though the reports I have seen give little information on which to base a judgment of its scientific value.”
    OC to JJM, April 16, 1905: “When you are quite ready to make your construction known I shall be very glad to receive a description as well as the photos which you offer to send me. Meanwhile I should be glad to know: 1. The amount of surface in square feet of present machine; 2. The weight of the apparatus and weight of man; 3. The speed attained in the air and over the ground; 4. The angle of descent, so far as ascertained; 5. The time occupied in descent from 3000 feet.” [In reply to Chanute’s inquiry, Montgomery sent a description of construction details and a good photograph of one of his models.]
    OC to OW, April 16, 1905: “Enclosed please find a letter from Mr. Montgomery [April 11, 1905] which please return when you have read it.”
    JJM to OC, April 20, 1905: “Please keep in confidence some of my arrangements. As I make progress I shall keep you posted.” [Letter has details on parabolic shape of wings, rotary movement of the air and details on his machine’s construction and operation.]
    WW to OC, April 20, 1905: “Mr. Montgomery is quite right in saying that he has dared what no one else ventured to try; and if thereby he shall succeed in obtaining information or skill not attainable by safe methods, he is certainly entitled to great credit.”
    OC to JJM, April 28, 1905: “I thank you for your letter of 20th, and the photograph, which latter I will keep to myself for the present, as I infer that you are applying for a patent. … I think you have devised a very good wing movement … I hope that you will measure accurately the speed through the air … and the angle of gliding, which latter is the most important to give you the relation of the resistance to the supporting power. This information will be required when you come to apply a motor.”
    OC to OW, April 28, 1905: “I have an answer from Montgomery, who says that his machine had about 180 square feet wing surface, 24 feet from tip to tip, two surfaces in tandem (somewhat like Langley’s) and weighed 42 pounds; the aeronaut weighed 145 pounds. The speed and angles of flight varied and were not measured. The time occupied in descending was about 13 minutes. … Montgomery also says that he has had urgent and promising demands for machines for exhibition purposes and is preparing them. … I infer that he has applied for a patent and does not want to disclose his details until he is protected.” [Montgomery’s patent application was filed April 26, 1905 and granted on September 18, 1906; the Wright’s patent was filed March 23, 1903 and granted on May 22, 1906.]

  14. Mr. Burdick,

    In your latest posting on John Montgomery, you raise some basic questions that call for a response. I include your comment in quotations. My response follows. This will be my last comment on this subject.

    “Montgomery performed his first flight on August 28, 1883, not 1884 as stated by Victor Lougheed in his excellent book “Vehicles of the Air” (1911).”

    Not so. In a definitive 1909 article on his own work, Montgomery himself unequivocally dated his first flight to 1884. News accounts published as early as 1905, when Montgomery first achieved national fame with his balloon-borne glider flights, also identified 1884 as the date of his first flight. At no point did Montgomery ever indicate that he was unsure of the 1884 date. Moreover, we can assume that Victor Lougheed, an admiring author and potential business partner, obtained his information on the Otay Mesa experiments directly from Montgomery. The 1883 date stems from later and far more questionable accounts by the experimenter’s brother James Montgomery.

    “There is no evidence, as you surmise, that “Montgomery read and apparently approved” this figure and I doubt that Chanute was in the habit of having others proofread his writings…. After this first flight Montgomery made many additional flights….”

    Montgomery’s copy of Octave Chanute’s Progress in Flying Machines survives, with Montgomery’s marginal notes. That seems to me to be a pretty clear indication that the experimenter read Chanute’s account and corrected it only to the extent of claiming that the single flight had covered 600 feet, instead of the 100 feet mentioned in the account. Chanute notes only one successful flight, and Montgomery does not correct or contradict him. Nor did he do so at any point in their subsequent correspondence.

    “The statement that John Montgomery “knew next to nothing about the state of flying machine experiments in other parts of the world” is unsubstantiated.”

    I have read most of what survives of Montgomery’s writings. There are few if any references to the other individuals who had established the foundation of aeronautical engineering before him, from Sir George Cayley to Francis Herbert Wenham. In short, there is nothing to indicate that Montgomery was aware of the work of other experimenters.

    “He also corresponded extensively with Chanute over the years (who then divulged Montgomery’s ideas to the Wright brothers without his permission.”

    The implication that the Wright brothers profited from a knowledge of Montgomery’s work is clearly false.

    “In a conversation with the Wright brothers at the October 22-31, 1910 “Belmont Meet” held at the Belmont race track on Long Island, John Montgomery informed them of the complex turns and maneuvers his pilots could perform with his machines (which was well documented and witnessed by thousands, going back to 1905). Orville (in a letter to Thomas S. Baldwin dated November 13, 1911, two weeks after Montgomery’s death) was dumfounded, stating, “Montgomery was a hard man to understand. … (He) told us in perfect seriousness that the control of his machine was so great that the ‘boys’ … were looping the loop time after time … Of course there was no doubt in our minds as to whether his statement should be believed, but it was hard to tell as to whether the statement was a result of an illusion, or whether it was simply a plain falsehood.”

    If you actually believes that the Montgomery gliders were capable of “looping the loop,” you are mistaken. Orville Wright’s comment seems to sum the matter up.

    “Orville’s incredulity is quite understandable since the Wright aeroplanes were notoriously unstable and difficult to control, resulting in the deaths of many aeronauts…”

    I know of only three pilots who flew Montgomery gliders. Two of them died in accidents with the machines and the third narrowly escaped the same fate when his glider crashed. No other early aviator/builder came even close to that death rate, certainly not the Wright brothers.

    I want to reemphasize my earlier tribute to John J. Montgomery’s ingenuity and courage. I will however, stick to my original comment that his work had little or no impact on the subsequent development of aviation

  15. I am very appreciative of Dr. Crouch’s timely and thoughtful responses which I find most enlightening.
    John Montgomery was a gentle, shy man who was more interested in discovering the principles of flight and developing controllable flying machines than he was in establishing records (and remembering them).
    The complete control that Montgomery’s pilots experienced with his machines was witnessed by thousands and reported in the newspapers of the time (San Francisco Call, 30 April 1905; New York Tribune, 28 May 1905, for example).
    I am aware of eight people who were killed in Wright planes: Lt. Thomas Selfridge (1908), Eugène Lefebvre (1909), Charles Stewart Rolls (1910), Ralph Johnstone (1910), Calbraith Perry Rodgers (1912), Weldon B. Cooke (1914), Don Gum and Mitchell Cary (2011).
    Our correspondence reminds me of an exchange in one of Alfred Hitchock’s movies, “The Lady Vanishes” (1938), when Dr. Egon Hartz (played by you) replies to Iris (played by me), who suggests he will “have to think of a fresh theory”: “My theory was a perfectly good one, the facts were misleading.”
    Thank you for allowing me to have the last word on this subject.

  16. Having done many years of research on the subject of Montgomery for the upcoming book: Quest for Flight: John J. Montgomery and the Dawn of Aviation in America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press: anticipated 2012) I feel compelled to point out that it is unnecessary to rely on secondary sources such as Chanute (1894), Kavanagh (1905) or Lougheed (1909) in exploring Montgomery’s pre-1900 flight experiments when the primary source material is available on the subject. Montgomery’s own authoritative accounts were given from the time he first went public (1905 interviews), and later in 1909 (journal article), 1910 (interviews, speech and journal article), 1911 (reprinted journal article) and those excerpts and reprints published posthumously (in articles and books). The differences between Montgomery’s own statements about his earliest experiments and the secondary sources listed above (Chanute, Kavanagh and Lougheed) reflect the nature of secondary sources: the ease with which error and misinterpretations can unknowingly be introduced. There is no evidence that Montgomery proofed and/or approved any of the secondary sources listed above nor is there any logic that can be used to assert that they are authoritative. Montgomery was the authority on his own work, and as far as i have been able to determine, he was taken as an entirely credible source on his work during his lifetime.

    Craig S. Harwood
    Co-Author (along with Gary B. Fogel):
    “Quest for Flight: John J. Montgomery and The Dawn of Aviation in America”

  17. My own favorite, as pointed out above is the denver airport conspiracy theory…underground tunnels..entire underground cities.

    Some of these I hadn’t heard of before!

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