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Samuel Franklin Cody - Pioneer of British Aviation

Samuel Franklin Cody (1867 - 1913) was a pioneer airman and inventor. Much of his earlier life is shrouded in mystery, due to his tendency to fictionalise it. However, he is thought to have been born Franklin Samuel Cowdery on 6 March, 1867 and, before settling in England in 1896, he was in turn a cowboy, a frontiersman, a showman and a playwright. At some stage he changed his surname to Cody to create a fictitious connection to William Frederick Cody, the famous cowboy showman 'Buffalo Bill'.

Samuel Franklin Cody is recognised as the first Englishman to have achieved sustained powered flight, and is thus to England what the Wright Brothers are to the United States.

Kites, Glider Kites and Motor Kites

Cody became interested in kite-flying around 1890, and carried out experiments for the US government at the Blue Hill Observatory, Massachusetts. In 1896, Cody arrived in Great Britain and continued to pursue his interest in man-lifting kites. In 1902, Cody's wife, Lela (Leila) Marie, became the first woman to fly, when lifted aloft in one of her husband's war kites. In 1903, Cody succeeded in crossing the English Channel in a canvas canoe, towed by a large kite. This feat drew him to the attention of the British Admiralty to whom he gave a demonstration of a man-lifting kite1 off the deck of HMS Revenge. His kites were improved versions of those originally designed by BFS Baden-Powell2 and Lawrence Hargrave, the main difference being that Cody added wings for lift.

The army was also sufficiently impressed by Cody's kites that in 1906 he was employed as Chief Kiting Instructor at the Balloon School in Farnborough. He was also asked to set up two kite sections of the Royal Engineers and these later became the nucleus of the Air Battalion, Royal Engineers, which in turn became No 1 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps and finally No 1 Squadron, Royal Air Force. During this time Cody continued to develop his glider kites, the first of which he had built in 1905, these deriving from his man-lifting kites. Cody's glider kites were first flown at Crystal Palace and in the summer of 1905 he made his longest glide of some 225 metres (740 feet) with a drop of 107 metres (350 feet). In 1907, Cody flew the first of his motor-kites - having fitted a 12-horsepower engine to one of his man-lifting kites - and these led eventually to powered aircraft.

Powered Aircraft

In 1908, Cody directed his attention to building a heavier-than-air flying machine and, according to witnesses, on 8 June, 1908, Cody made a flight of between 23.5 metres and 46 metres (75-150 feet) at Brooklands in one of his motor-kites, thus becoming the first person in Great Britain to achieve powered flight.

Following this success, Cody began to build powered aircraft and, after much trial and error, he eventually assembled a contraption of wood, metal and fabric. For this model, he had hoped to use the engine from one of his airships (see below), Nulli Secundus II3, but was forced instead to purchase a 50-horsepower French Antoinette engine. Using this, he recorded the first official sustained British flight on 16 October, 1908, by flying a distance of more than 423 metres (463 yards, about a quarter of a mile). On this occasion, the machine was brought from its shed, the engine started, and Cody climbed into the seat, which was made from the seat of an old plough. The machine rose gently and, after covering about 100 yards, sank safely back to earth. This first flight was carried out 'with' the wind, but for his second attempt Cody decided to face into the wind, which was then blowing at about 12mph. Again the machine was started and, after a short run, the nose lifted. Now, in common with all pioneers, Cody had no experience of turning around but on this occasion he decided to attempt to do so. He succeeded in turning the aircraft through a quarter of a circle before having to land.

From here on, Cody's success was assured and, again in 1908, he produced a huge biplane (as he himself was no lightweight) with a monoplane front elevator. This machine, the largest aircraft then in existence, came to be known as the 'Flying Cathedral'4. On one occasion, another great aviation pioneer, Sir Aliot Verdon-Roe, recalled drawing Cody's attention to an important cable which was not duplicated and asking: 'What would happen if that wire broke when you were up at 1000 feet?' Cody replied: 'Oh, my name would be mud!'

On 5 September, 1909, Cody set a world record by performing a flight of over 40 miles. In 1910, Cody won the prestigious Michelin Cup with a flight of four hours and 47 minutes. In the same year, using a different aircraft, Cody's design finished fourth in the round-England race, and was the only British plane to finish. In 1912, Cody went to Larkhill to take part in the Military (aircraft) Trials of that year and won the competition prize of 5000, despite being handicapped through lack of finance and having to compete with many European firms with virtually limitless resources while fielding perhaps the oldest and most cumbersome design. Following this, Cody was able to sell his plane to the British government, where it acquired the code name 'British Army Aeroplane No 1'. It was a biplane with a 40-foot wingspan and bicycle wheels on the wing tips.

Up until 1908, Cody had continued to carry out box-kite trials with the Navy, but these stopped when it became obvious that the powered free-flying aircraft was to be the military machine of the future.


Cody also assisted in the development and flying of the dirigible airships being built by the Balloon Factory where he helped to design the first British airship, Nulli Secundus. On 5 October, 1907, with himself, Colonel JE Capper (Royal Engineers) and Lieutenant CM Waterloo aboard, he made a world record flight of three hours and 25 minutes, flying from Aldershot to London. After circling St Paul's Cathedral, they attempted to return to Aldershot but were defeated by 18mph headwinds and were forced to land at Crystal Palace.

In 1908, Cody's contract with the War Office was terminated by Richard Haldane, the Secretary of State for War, as a result of a report from the Committee of Imperial Defence declaring that there was no military use for aeroplanes. This decision was, however, overturned in 1910 when it became obvious that the rest of Europe, particularly France and Germany, were continuing with aircraft development.

Cody's Death

Cody continued his developmental work on Laffan's Plain, Farnborough until his death on 7 August, 1913, in his Cathedral VI seaplane over the landing area. On this occasion, Cody was joy-riding with a passenger, the cricketer WHB Evans, when his aircraft broke in half above Ball Hill. Both were pronounced dead on arrival at the Connaught Hospital. His funeral was attended by a very large military procession, including all the Royal Flying Corps personnel in the garrison. He was buried with full military honours in the Aldershot Military Cemetery.

'Colonel' Cody

SF Cody is often referred to as 'Colonel' Cody, this being an assumed title stemming from his having succeeded the original Colonel Cody, 'Buffalo Bill' of cowboy fame. Both were Wild West showmen and, because they shared the same name, they were often mistaken for one another despite being unrelated. As stated above, this confusion was deliberate on the part of SF Cody. When King George V, viewing the gigantic Cody aeroplane in 1913, addressed its inventor as 'Colonel Cody', the latter doubtless felt justified in retaining the title.

It is now thought that, despite his engineering and flying abilities and his command of the language, Cody was, in fact, unable to read or write.

Cody is known as the 'father of British aviation', and was awarded the silver medal by the Royal Aeronautical Society for his services to aeronautics. His work stimulated public interest in aviation and led to the formation of the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Naval Air Service.

1 A number of interesting artefacts relating to Cody, including a replica of his man-lifting kite, can be seen at the Museum of Army Flying, Middle Wallop, Hampshire, UK.
2 Major BFS Baden-Powell, Scots Guards, Honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, was the younger brother of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement. He was interested in kites for their military reconnaissance potential.
3 An airship named 'Second to None II' was presumably meant to raise a laugh as well as a pilot.
4 From the French term katahedral, referring to the curvature of the biplane's wings.

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Entry Data
Entry ID: A10358796 (Edited)

Edited by:
Trin Tragula

Date: 19   May   2006

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Referenced Guide Entries
The Wright Brothers - Aviators
St Paul's Cathedral (from 1666 AD), London, UK

Related BBC Pages
BBC History

Referenced Sites
Museum of Army Flying
Royal Air Force

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