Page last updated at 16:15 GMT, Thursday, 16 October 2008 17:15 UK

'My great-grandfather, the pioneer'

One hundred years ago to the day, Samuel Franklin Cody made the first powered flight in Britain. His great-grandson, the BBC's world affairs editor John Simpson, marked the event at a ceremony in Farnborough in Hampshire where the historic flight took place.

Sam Cody
A century ago, Samuel Cody flew a bamboo and canvas plane at 25mph

To commemorate Cody's achievement, a replica of his fragile aircraft was unveiled in the presence of Lady Thatcher, the former prime minister, and other dignitaries.

Overhead there was a flypast of some of the famous British aircraft which followed where Cody led: the Gypsy Moth, Anson and Hurricane.

A Vulcan also took part - perhaps for the last time it will take to the air.

Sam Cody was a remarkable man.

Recent investigation has dismantled some of the legends, but he was born in the United States in about 1860, and became a cowboy.

By the time he was in his teens he was a trail boss on the Chisholm Trail herding cattle.

Later he met a wealthy British dealer called John Blackburn Davis.

Davis hired Cody to bring a consignment of horses to Britain.

He fell in love with Davis's daughter, Lela, and they eloped.

She already had three children, but Cody lovingly brought them up as his own.

One was my grandmother.

Shooting apples

Cody, Lela and the children threw themselves with huge enthusiasm into Cody's next project: his Wild West shows and displays of sharp-shooting.

He would ride round the ring shooting cigarettes out of Lela's mouth.

Once, when he hit her in the thigh, she remained standing gamely in place until the entire act was finished.

Cody's plane, made mostly of bamboo and canvas, lifted unexpectedly high off the ground, and flew at a speed of 25 miles an hour for 1,390 feet

His most elaborate stunt was to put apples on the boys' heads, then ride away from them at full speed on his superb horse.

Aiming with the help of two mirrors fixed to his saddle, he would fire both his rifles over his shoulders simultaneously.

He hit the apples every time, and never hurt the boys.

When he was a young cowboy on the range, Chinese cooks travelling with the outfit taught Cody to fly kites.

Now he approached the War Ministry, proposing to build kites for reconnaissance purposes.

The Royal Navy and the army were both interested, and Cody built several man-carrying kites for them.

In 1907 the British Army asked him to build a manned aircraft.

Cody was a clever inventor and improviser and by October 1908 he was ready to take to the air.


Archive footage of some of the first flights

Even at the time it was a fairly small step. Cody's plane, made mostly of bamboo and canvas, lifted unexpectedly high off the ground, and flew at a speed of 25 miles an hour for 1,390 feet (424 metres).

After only 30 seconds it crashed.

But it was a huge step for aviation, and within three years Cody, still one of the leaders in the field, was flying for four and a half hours at a time, at speeds of 55mph.

But his aircraft harked back to that of the Wright Brothers, rather than forward to the planes which would fight in World War I , and although he beat 32 other pilots in a fiercely-contested competition in 1912 for the British War Office, his machine was already outdated.

He beat the other pilots again and again because of his personal courage, even though he was in his 50s by this time, and the rest were mostly in their 20s and 30s.

His only income was from the prizes he won by flying. The other pilots nicknamed him, affectionately, 'Papa' Cody.

Only four years later, in August 1913, his aircraft broke up in the air, and he and his passenger were killed.

Almost every regiment of the British Army was represented at his funeral.

My aunty Leonie was a little girl at the time.

She watched her mother returning from the scene of the crash, and was told Cody was dead.

In 1988 she was interviewed for a BBC television documentary about Cody.

"It was a terrible thing to me", she said, and although it was nearly 80 years later, the tears ran down her face.

Cody was a superb character, larger than life; he had that effect on people.

Fly-past celebrates first flight
16 Oct 08 |  Hampshire
Pioneering plane replicated
22 May 08 |  England
Thousands watch Vulcan's display
06 Jul 08 |  Lincolnshire


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