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Daniel J. Maloney, Aeronaut: Forgotten Aviation Pioneer of Fairmount Heights

“Those daring young men in their flying machines!” This might be the last phrase expected to have an association with our neighborhoods but, in another amazing rediscovery, we now have a significant link to the history of aviation.

In the 1900 Federal US Census, 21-year-old Daniel John Maloney, a first-generation Irish-American, is living on Palmer Street (now Whitney Street), near the intersection of Randall in today’s Fairmount Heights. His stated occupation: Aeronaut.

While working as a groundskeeper for the Glen Park and Mission Zoo in today’s Glen Canyon Park (see (Hi)Stories of our Neighborhoods, Glen Park News, Summer, 2016, page 8), Maloney was able to watch aeronauts ascend in high-flying balloons to perform death-defying aerial feats. Aeronauts performing at Glen Park included Pacific coast favorites Professor Charles Conlon – the first to go aloft at Glen Park – and Professor F. P. Hagel. These men, and at least one woman who flew by the name Mademoiselle Anita, risked their lives while performing trapeze stunts hundreds of feet up, then descending back to earth with the use of a primitive canvas parachute. Thousands would visit the resort every weekend to crane their necks and watch the spectacular Victorian-era extreme sport. 

(Left) Announcement of the Grand Opening of the new season of the Glen Park and the Mission Zoo, a "mammoth show" that would include a balloon ascension. San Francisco Call, April 22, 1900; (Below) Image of the "Proposed Glen Park and Mission Zoo," looking south to Martha Hill near today's western baseball diamond of the Glen Canyon Park Recreation Area. The "blob" is balloon named the "Glen Park" which is attempting to ascend. From a Supplement, San Francisco Daily Report (no date). Image courtesy of the California Historical Society; (Right) An example of an aeronaut ascending (not at Glen Park but at the Lewis County Fair, Lowville, New York), holding on to a trapeze, ca. 1900. Image from Personal Collection of Evelyn Rose.

Maloney’s “sky traveling” profession, as he called it, began when one of the scheduled aeronauts failed to show and he volunteered as a substitute. Early rides were bumpy: on his fourth flight at Glen Park, he lost his grip on the parachute bar 40 feet up and fell to the ground, breaking a rib and lacerating his thigh. The previous week, Maloney’s balloon had caught fire but he was able to parachute back to safety. After Glen Park became a private picnic grounds under the Crocker Estate about 1901, he next set his sights on those new-fangled flying machines.

By 1904, Maloney had become what we would today call a "test pilot" for inventor Professor John J. Montgomery of Santa Clara College (today Santa Clara University). Barely mentioned in the annals of aviation history, Montgomery is credited by many to have achieved controlled flight in the first heavier-than-air craft in history, a flat-winged glider that traveled a distance of about 650 feet at Otay Mesa, California in 1883 to 1884 – 20 years before the Wright Brothers! He continued to refine his design of a curved, or parabolic, wing.

It was Dan Maloney who suggested to Montgomery that his latest craft, a fixed-wing glider named the Santa Clara, could be lifted aloft via balloon and cut loose at 4,000 feet rather launched from a high hill. An article in the June 1905 issue of Popular Mechanics described how the craft functioned: "The aeroplane consists of four wings, having a spread of 22 ft. and built of spruce ribs with light cross ribs of hickory, upon which canvas is stretched. Each of these wings is rigid at the front, and a series of guy wires which are controlled by the aeronaut run from the frame to which they are attached to points along their sides. When the aeronaut pulls the wires one wing curves downward while the opposite wing relaxes. The four wings are operated as but two. The machine is steered by a tail which the aeronaut raises or lowers at will. When it is tilted upward the machine raises in front, or to dip downward, the tail is lowered. To alight the aeronaut raises the tail at the close of the descent and the machine assumes a horizontal position and the aeronaut may step off."

Cover page, Popular Mechanics, June 1905. Available at Google Books.

(Left) Aeronaut Daniel J. Maloney, 25 years old, appears confident and self-assured while posing for this photograph. The sketch shows Maloney sitting astride the glider "Santa Clara" as he prepares for ascension. His mentor, inventor Professor John J. Montgomery, developer of the craft, appears in the inset. San Francisco Chronicle, July 19, 1905; (Below) Image of Dan Maloney astride the "Santa Clara." Other men identified as (left to right): Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court, W. D. Lorrigan; Frank Hamilton, owner of the lift balloon; Maloney; Professor John J. Montgomery; and Reverend Jerome Ricard, Santa Clara College. April 29, 1905. Image courtesy of Santa Clara University Library, Archives and Special Collections, John J. Montgomery Collection, JM-2-06-001. 

Maloney described his 20-minute experience as the first man to fly fixed-wing at such an altitude: “… as I looked at the ground so far below me and realized I was sailing on a machine that weighed only 42 pounds … I was able to steer and turn and go up and down and I think I felt just about like a bird feels …” It was a feat that would go down in the annals of aviation history as an "unprecedented" event, and after 2 days of test flights (May 17 and 20, 1905), Maloney "far surpassed all previous records for altitude, distance, and duration for gliding flights (approximately 15 minutes) anywhere in the world." In other flights, Maloney was likely the first to perform a somersault, barrel roll, and figure eights at high altitude, "... demonstrating amazing lateral control in all dimensions." Further, "... one great problem of aerial navigation from the beginning had been that of controlled flight and maintained equilibrium ... [which] for the first time in history it was their privilege to witness."

The two aviation pioneers continued their test flights until July 18, 1905 when tragedy struck. As Maloney sat astride the Santa Clara, Professor Montgomery noticed a balloon handling line had become entangled around one of the glider’s wing struts during liftoff. He called out to Maloney to just ride the balloon back down, but he was beyond earshot. At about 3,000 feet, the suspension rope was cut and the glider was on its own. It soon became uncontrollable, dipping, swerving, and overturning several times. The “brave and popular” Dan Maloney worked desperately to maintain control, then clung to the machine as it plunged to the ground in front of 2,000 horrified spectators at Santa Clara College. Tragically, he was killed on impact. 

(Left) Aeronaut Dan Maloney being lifted aloft for a test flight with a throng of curious spectators in attendance. Old Agricultural Park, San Jose, California, May 21, 1905. Image courtesy of Santa Clara University Library, Archives and Special Collections, John J. Montgomery Collection, JM-2-07-002.; (Right) Image of Daniel John Maloney in J. J. Montgomery's tandem wing aircraft being lifted by Frank Hamilton's balloon, May 21, 1905, at Old Agricultural Park, San Jose, California. Photograph taken by the San Francisco Bulletin. Image courtesy of Santa Clara University Library, Archives and Special Collections, John J. Montgomery Collection, JM-2-09-001.

Devastated by the loss, and then delayed because of the aftermath of the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, Montgomery infrequently practiced experimental flight. By 1911, he was piloting his newest glider, the Evergreen. At only 20 feet up, the craft stalled and he fell to the ground. After hitting his head on an exposed bolt, he died soon after. 

Despite their accomplishments, their premature endings coupled with the emphasis of flight research on the East coast have deprived both of these extraordinary aeronauts from receiving the complete recognition they deserve. Some discoveries were made by Montgomery and the Wright Brothers on opposite coasts in parallel. Yet, some researchers blame the Wright Brothers for adjusting the historic record. In efforts to maximize their marketing efforts and gain name awareness and credit, the Wrights may have intentionally omitted mention of Montgomery's and Maloney's accomplishments from the story of flight. Despite this professional disregard, there are many who agree that Montgomery was the first to fly a fixed-wing, heavier-than-air craft, and that Fairmount Heights' Dan Maloney was the first to fly a fixed-wing, heavier-than-air craft at high altitude.


Montgomery’s original 1911 glider, the Evergreen, is on display at the San Diego Air and Space Museum. Replicas of Montgomery’s 1884 glider, in addition to his Evergreen and the 1905 Santa Clara piloted by Maloney, can be viewed at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California.


Fairmount Heights' Daniel J. Maloney, Aeronaut ... ne'er to be forgotten.


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