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The flying of man-carrying kites was a prelude to “Colonel” Cody’s achievements with aeroplanes


Samuel Franklin Cody, seated in one of his biplanes

PILOT AND AIRCRAFT BUILDER. Samuel Franklin Cody, seated in one of his biplanes. An American who became a naturalized British subject, Cody accomplished many outstanding performances. He won several competitions and earned thousands of pounds. He was killed in a flying accident on August 7, 1913, while testing a new aircraft he had built for a seaplane flight round Britain.

ONE of the most romantic and picturesque of the aviation pioneers was Samuel Franklin Cody. Unlike so many makers of air history, he had had no engineering or scientific training, and his mechanical knowledge was comparatively negligible when he first became interested in aeronautics.

Cody was born at Texas, in 1861. Many stories are told of his early years, and he himself claimed that he toured with the famous “Wild West” troupe owned by the original Colonel Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill. Whether this is true or not, it is certain that Samuel Franklin Cody was with a “Wild West” troupe as a cowboy, and that when Buffalo Bill died, he assumed the “rank” of Colonel after his famous namesake.

It was as a Wild West showman that Samuel Franklin Cody came to England at the age of thirty-four. Later, however, he wrote popular melodramas in which he and his family acted. While he was on tour with his melodramas he became interested in kite-flying, and thought of the idea of using a man-lifting kite for military purposes.

So successful were his first box-kite experiments, made in 1905, that the War Office appointed him as an instructor at Farnborough with the Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers (the forerunners of the Royal Flying Corps). A height of 1,600 feet was attained by a Cody kite in 1905, and in the same year a sapper in the Royal Engineers was enabled to remain in the air for one hour at an altitude of 2,600 feet. The British Government eventually awarded Cody £5,000 for his box-kite experiments.

While he was at Farnborough Cody was associated with Colonel Capper and Colonel Templar (two men who rendered great service to British aviation) in the designing and building of the first British military airship, Nulli Secundus. But Cody’s most valuable work at Farnborough was with the machine which became known as the British Army biplane. The design of this aeroplane is sometimes attributed to Cody, and is sometimes known as Cody’s first machine. This is not strictly true; Cody developed it, persevered with it and modified it from a design already in existence, but so much of his work and ideas did go into it that the completed machine can be regarded as his own. He was certainly the first man to make it fly successfully.

During 1908 he made several “hops” with this machine, but they could scarcely be called flights. It was not until February 1909 that he made a flight of any appreciable distance. At Laffan’s Plain, Aldershot, he flew a distance of 400 yards at a height of 12 feet and at a speed of 10-12 miles an hour. On that same day, a momentous one for British aviation, he attempted a second flight. The first flight had been made with the wind, but on his second attempt Cody faced the wind, which was blowing at twelve miles an hour. The machine left the ground and Cody decided to try to turn it. At that time little was known about turning an aeroplane, but Cody turned his aeroplane through an angle of about ninety degrees before it crashed.

A SAPPER in the Royal Engineers was in 1905 carried to a height of 2,600 feet by one of Cody’s man-lifting kites

A SAPPER in the Royal Engineers was in 1905 carried to a height of 2,600 feet by one of Cody’s man-lifting kites. The sapper remained in the air for one hour. This was achieved when Cody was an instructor at Farnborough to the Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers. Cody was awarded £5,000 by the British Government for his important box-kite experiments.

After the crash Cody spent several weeks of trials and experiments, and on May 14 he flew the biplane 1,200 yards from Laffan’s Plain to Danger Hill. This flight created new British records for duration and for distance.

In the afternoon of that day the Prince of Wales (later King George V) asked for a demonstration, but Cody could not repeat his success. In trying to avoid some troops, he crashed into an embankment and damaged the tail of his machine. Once more Cody retired from active flying for a period while he repaired his biplane. When these repairs were completed he made a circular flight of two miles. He carried out further adjustments to the machine, and in September 1909 he set up a world record with a cross-country flight of forty miles in one hour. During the flight he reached an altitude of 600 feet.

His British Army biplane now having proved itself and convinced even its severest critics, Cody took it to the aviation meeting at Doncaster, Yorkshire, in October 1909.

Here he completed his naturalization as a British subject in time to try to win the Daily Mail prize of £1,000 for the first British pilot to fly a circular mile on an all-British aeroplane. While he was taxy-ing over the ground he ran into a patch of sand and the machine overturned. Cody was unhurt.

Because of its peculiar appearance the British Army biplane was known as the “Cathedral”’ Although Cody made many changes from the original design, they did not affect the main dimensions. The “Cathedral” was the largest and heaviest machine of its day. It had a span of about 40 feet with a gap of 8 feet between the upper and lower wing surfaces.

Several engines were fitted to the “Cathedral”, including a 60 horse-power. E.N.V. (which was the first engine to be fitted), a 50 horse-power Green, a 50 horsepower Antoinette, a 100 and 120 horse-power Austro-Daimler, and a 60 horse-power Green.

Cody built a second machine, which made an inauspicious beginning at Lanark, where Scotland’s first aviation meeting was held in August 1910.

Before this, on June 7, Cody had qualified for the Royal Aero Club’s pilot certificate No. 9. At Lanark, Cody’s new machine, which weighed about one and a quarter tons, was underpowered and he could scarcely make it leave the ground. A month later, however, after he had fitted a 60 horse-power Green engine, he made several successful flights.

It was on this machine that he accomplished two of the most outstanding performances of his career. A British Empire Michelin Cup had been presented for the longest distance to be flown in a closed circuit by a British pilot in a British aircraft during 1910. Cody was soon among the leaders with a magnificent flight of 94½ miles in two hours twenty-hour minutes. This created new British records for distance and duration. But Cody was obliged to put up even better performances than this before the year was out. At the end of December, only a few days before the competition closed for that particular year, he flew, in bad weather, 115 miles in two hours fifty minutes before he crashed. No damage was done either to Cody or to his aeroplane, and he decided to make a further attempt. His chance appeared to have gone, however, for other competitors were making extraordinarily good flights. At Camber, near Rye, in Sussex, Alec Ogilvie had flown 139¾ miles in three hours fifty-five minutes. It seemed certain that this superb performance would win the Cup for Ogilvie, but the last day of the year, and therefore the last day of the competition, saw a spectacular and dramatic finish.

CODY’S BIPLANE WAS BADLY DAMAGED at the famous aviation meeting at Doncaster

CODY’S BIPLANE WAS BADLY DAMAGED at the famous aviation meeting at Doncaster, Yorkshire, in October 1909. Cody was to have made an attempt to win a prize of £1,000 for the first British pilot to complete a circular mile on an all-British aeroplane. While taxying, his aeroplane an into a patch of sand and overturned. Cody was unhurt.

T. O. M. Sopwith (who had previously been forced down in bad weather after having flown 70 miles in two hours) flew over 150 miles in four hours seven minutes seventeen seconds. Ogilvie tried again, but engine trouble forced him down after he had flown over fifty miles in an hour and a half.

It was characteristic of Cody that he should have taken part in this spectacular finish. Faithful to Laffan’s Plain, he flew there on that dramatic last day of December for four hours forty-seven minutes for a distance of over 185 miles. This superb flight not only won him the Michelin Cup, but it also set up new British records for duration and distance on a closed circuit. It would have been a magnificent flight in any circumstances, but it was particularly meritorious because Cody flew in intense cold and through fog.

Unlucky But Indomitable

Another outstanding performance was his failure to win the Daily Mail £10,000 prize for the race round Britain. He was handicapped by persistent ill-luck, but he completed the course, his biplane being the only British machine to do so. The course for this great race was from Brooklands to Hendon (twenty miles on the first day). Hendon to Edinburgh, via Harrogate and Newcastle (343 miles on the second day; Edinburgh to Bristol, via Stirling, Glasgow, Carlisle and Manchester (383 miles on the third day); Bristol to Brighton, via Exeter and Salisbury Plain (224 miles on the fourth day); and Brighton to Brooklands (forty miles on the fifth day).

Cody made good progress until he reached Rotherham, in Yorkshire, when a burst water-pipe handicapped him; then, when he was near Harrogate, his petrol tank leaked. Having repaired this he set off for Newcastle with little hope now of winning the race. He lost his way to Newcastle and crashed, smashing the undercarriage of his machine.

Such a series of mishaps would have discouraged most men, especially when it was virtually certain that they could not hope to win the prize; but Cody had set out to fly round Britain, prize or no prize, and he was determined to accomplish it. He repaired the undercarriage of the machine and completed the remainder of the course to Brooklands, having taken eight days instead of the five required by the competition. The winner of this race was Lieut. de Yaisseau Conneau.

The British Empire Michelin Cup was Cody’s speciality, and he entered for the second of these trophies in 1911. The winner would be the pilot who made the fastest time over a cross-country circuit of 125 miles. Only British subjects flying British machines were eligible to compete.

Many famous aviators entered for this British Empire Trophy No. 2, including Graham Gilmour, C. L. Pashley and F. P. Raynham, but only Cody completed the course. He flew the 125 miles in three hours six and a half minutes, at an average speed of about forty miles an hour to win the Cup and a prize of £400. Cody also entered for the 1911 competition of the British Michelin Trophy No. 1, which he had won the previous year after the dramatic last day struggle with Sopwith and Ogilvie. The competitors in the 1911 race were required to fly 250 miles non-stop to qualify for the competition. This time Cody had the easiest of victories, flying the 250 miles round a circuit at Laffan’s Plain in five hours fifteen minutes. The 1911 Cup carried with it a prize of £500.

Cody was now at the height of his fame, and he was an outstanding attraction at the leading trials and competitions. He became the first British pilot to carry passengers on a flight of any appreciable distance when, in January 1912, he flew several miles round Laffan’s Plain with four passengers.

It was in 1912 that Cody accomplished the best all-round performance of his remarkable career. In August of that year the Government held the famous Military Trials to discover which aeroplanes would be most suitable for use in the recently-formed Royal Flying Corps. These Military Trials were the most comprehensive tests to which aviation had been put in Great Britain, and it was appropriate that Cody, who had accomplished so much for British aviation, should have taken a leading part in them. The competitions attracted most of the famous pilots of the day, including Gordon Bell, T. O. M. Sopwith, Gordon England, Lieut. Parke, R.N., F. P. Raynham, James Valentine, Gustave Hamel, S. V. Sippe and Lieut. Porte, R.N.

Cody had a remarkable record in this competition, and in the judges’ final list of winners he was placed first. In the individual competitions he gained first places in the speed range with a difference between maximum and minimum speeds of 23·9 miles an hour, and in the landing tests, in which he pulled up within thirty yards. He gained third place in the slow speed tests, in which he flew at 48·5 miles an hour, and in the climbing tests, in which he climbed at the rate of 288 feet a second with the required full load.

Designed His Own Propeller

For these feats Cody was awarded the first prize of £4,000, open to the world, and the first prize of £1,000 awarded to the British pilot flying an aeroplane manufactured in Great Britain.

The biplane which he flew at the Trials was fitted with a 120 horse-power Austro-Daimler engine. Although he had won the £1,000 prize for the best performance on an all-British machine, it had not been a condition of that particular prize that the engine should be of British make or design. The Austro-Daimler engine was carried on bearers which were placed on a platform supported from the chassis by diagonal struts. The propeller was 10½ feet in diameter and had been designed by Cody himself. The biplane was 34 ft 3½-in long, had a span of 43 feet, and a gap of 6½ feet between the upper and lower wing surfaces. It had a main supporting surface of 430 square feet, a total supporting surface of 500 square feet and its weight, when loaded, was 2,680 lb.

The 1912 British Empire Michelin Trophy competition required British pilots to fly British-made machines round a cross-country circuit of 186 miles. Cody won the Trophy and a prize of £600 with a flight of over 200 miles in three hours twenty-six minutes.

This was to be Cody’s last outstanding performance, He had built a new biplane with which he intended to compete for the Daily Mail £5,000 prize offered for the first aviator to fly round Britain in a seaplane. Cody’s biplane was fitted with landing gear for its tests, and it was during these tests that the aeroplane collapsed. Cody and his passenger, W. H. B. Evans, an Oxford cricket Blue, were killed.

Cody built his own aeroplanes, guided by some instinct that he was doing the right thing. It is true that he had many crashes, but while orthodox designers were working out theories on the drawing-board, Cody was gaining practical experience in the air.

ONE OF THE EARLY BIPLANES with which Cody carried out experiments

ONE OF THE EARLY BIPLANES with which Cody carried out experiments. Unlike many pioneer pilots, Cody had no engineering or scientific training; he gained his knowledge by practical experience in the air. As a basis for some of his experiments he used an existing machine which he modified so that it became in effect his own design.

[From Part 21, published 26 July 1938]

You can read more on “The Designer of the Avro”, “The First British Pilot” and “Hon. C. S. Rolls” on this website.

Showman Who Turned Aviator