Samuel Franklin Cody

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According to Samuel Cody he was born in Birdville, Texas, in March 1861 to Samuel Franklin Cody Senior and his wife, Phoebe. He claimed his father was a hero of the Texan and Mexican War and had served as an officer in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. Cody also claimed his family were victims of an attack by a Sioux raid. Whilst Cody escaped with a gunshot wound to his thigh, he could only crawl away and watch as the family farm burned. In some accounts of his tale his whole family perished, in other versions it appears his parents and sister survived and at other times his family are not mentioned at all. After Cody had crawled nine miles to the Fort Worth Military Hospital and had his gun wound treated, he decided to strike out on his own on the Western Frontier, where he worked as a horse-trader and cowboy.

In reality, he had been born Franklin Samuel Cowdery, on 6 March 1867 in the Great Plains of Iowa, 700 miles north of where he had claimed. His family lineage could be traced to the Pilgrim Fathers, 250 years earlier. His father, Samuel Franklin Cowdery, had joined the Confederate Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War and served as a private in the 2nd Iowa Volunteer Infantry. During the war his father suffered with dysentery and was imprisoned at Belle Island. After the war he found the return to civilian life difficult, with little or no job opportunities. At a young age Cowdery left home to earn a living. He started work as a horse-trainer and was certainly an able horseman, breaking in horses and eventually progressing to working on the cattle trails across Texas.

Progression - Wild West Shows to Kiting and Flying

By April 1888 Cowdery started work in the Forepaugh Wild West Show and had assumed the name Samuel Franklin Cody. By changing his name he created a connection to the famous cowboy Samuel Cody, alias Buffalo Bill. In the arena, Cody's acts included two-handed trick shooting and displays of his horse-riding skills and rope tricks. Although Cody later boasted to be the star of the show there appear to be no posters which exist to support his claim. In 1890 Cody set sail for London. Whilst in Britain he developed his own cowboy stunt show with his partner, Lela Cody, and her two sons joining him on stage. In 1892 Cody and his family travelled to Paris to take their show to a European audience. Soon Cody became involved in a challenge with one of France's champion cyclists, Meyer of Dieppe. The challenge was to complete the greatest overall distance in a race, with Cody on horseback and Meyer on the latest modern bicycle. Over the space of four hours Cody emerged victorious crossing the finishing line astride two horses. Cody found it hard to refuse a challenge and this race was the first of many. The Cody family returned to England in 1898 and the show evolved into the spectacular The Klondyke Nugget. The gold rush of America was the show's inspiration and the plot revolved around a hero, heroine and villain. The show included typical Wild West exploits and Cody stunts. The Klondyke Nugget toured Britain and was a major success. At the turn of the century, Cody began experimenting with man-lifting kites and by 1901 he had offered his inventions to the British War Office. Cody knew that during the Boer War the British Army had used observation balloons. However, the balloons had many faults; they took hours to inflate and were useless in winds of any strength. In November 1902 Cody's patent for a man-lifting kite was accepted and in the following February he offered his designs to the British Navy. Although the Navy initially expressed an interest in Cody's work, the Admiralty eventually turned down his designs and involvement in the project. Cody also spent some time working on a kite boat in which he crossed the English Channel in 1903. Despite a difficult voyage, the publicity he received for his endeavours helped to raise his public profile. In June 1904 Cody came to Aldershot to test his kites, in collaboration with the Army. Cody's new found support for his work came in the form of Colonel Capper, head of the Army Balloon Factory, Farnborough. By 1st February 1905 Cody was employed by the British Army on a temporary basis. Despite the fact that Cody was not officially an officer in the Army, Capper issued a directive giving him absolute authority in relation to kiting. Cody had a salary of £1000 per annum and his expenses were fixed at the rate of lieutenant. Cody's career with the Army looked as though it was over in February 1909 when he was informed the Army no longer required his services. However, under the terms of his contract the War Office were required to give him six-months notice. After much lobbying, the authorities at Aldershot Garrison were persuaded to acknowledge Cody's ownership of his plane and gave him permission to base his workshop at Laffan's Plain. Cody spent many hours testing his aircraft over the skies of Farnborough whilst large crowds gathered to watch him.

Cody and his flying machines

When Cody first came to Aldershot in 1906, he was involved in working on balloons, kites and aeroplanes. One of his first designs was an unmanned glider, powered by a small Buchet engine, which he was frustratingly forced to tether to the ground during experiments. In September 1907 the war airship, Nulli Secundus, was unveiled at Aldershot. After completing two circuits of Farnborough Common at a height of 800 feet, it was immediately hailed a success. Cody's involvement in the ship's design and construction had been crucial. By the end of 1907 Cody had begun plans for his first aeroplane. Code named British Army Aero Plane No. 1, it was a biplane with forty-foot wings, bicycle wheels on the wing tips and a revolutionary buffer wheel. Nulli Secundus II was launched in July 1908 with little success. On the first flight fuel pipes burst and on the second trip a water pipe was badly damaged by strong winds. Cody's 1909 plane became known as 'The Flying Cathedral' because of the French term katahedral referring to the curvature of the biplanes wings The Mk II Cathedral was originally fitted with two engines but these proved to be unsuccessful so Cody used just one engine instead. Cody was constantly reinventing his planes to improve performance and stability. It was this plane which Cody entered in the 1910 Michelin Cup. The Cathedral came to an untimely end when a trainee pilot caused it to crash at Laffan's Plain in December 1911. However, by 1912 Cody had been able to install an Austro-Daimler engine and the Cathedral Mk III was now capable of carrying up to four passengers at a time. During the winter of 1911, Cody began designs for a new plane. This was to be his first attempt at a monoplane. Cody was looking to build a sleeker, faster and more comfortable aircraft. By spring 1912 the monoplane was reaching speeds of eighty miles an hour. Cody had plans for an air ambulance that could be used by the Royal Army Medical Corps. His Cathedral was able to carry a table, doctor, assistant and anaesthetist. The Mk III Cathedral, which was so successful at the Salisbury Plain Military War Trials, July 1912. Cody's final aircraft, the water-plane, had a sixty-foot wingspan. This was the largest he had built. Cody practiced floating the plane on the Basingstoke Canal near Laffan's Plain. The aircraft could also be fitted with wheels in place of the floats.

Achievements and events

The success of the Nulli Secondus was proven on 10th October 1907 when Colonel Capper and Cody went on an impromptu flight from Aldershot to London. The airship eventually landed on Clapham Common following a failed landing at Buckingham Palace. Capper had promised King Edward that on the first trip to London they would land in the palace grounds. A distance of approximately 50 miles had been covered. Army Aeroplane No.1, designed and piloted by Cody, was the first plane to fly in Britain. On 16th October 1908 Cody flew to an altitude of about 30-40 feet towards Cove Common. The landing was less than smooth as the left wing collapsed and the plane crumpled when Cody pulled the rudder too sharply. Cody emerged unscathed and immediately began planning new improvements and alterations. The plane had travelled a distance of almost 1,400 feet in 27 seconds. Newspapers around the world reported the event. On 14th August 1909, Cody took the first passenger up in his aircraft. This honour went to Colonel Capper despite the frosty atmosphere that had been developing between them. Waiting for them to return was Lela Cody who was preparing herself for her first flight as a passenger. When Cody went for an early morning flight on 8th September 1909 he lost track of time and only realized how long he had been airborne when the plane started to run out of fuel. The flight lasted for sixty-three minutes and Cody had covered a distance of over 40 miles. To put this in context, Louis Bleriot held the official world record for a cross-country flight covering a distance of 25 miles. The publicity Cody received for his flight was overwhelming. The first air show in Britain was held at Doncaster racecourse in October 1909. The weather was appalling and it was difficult for any flying attempts to be made. However, on the second day, Cody completed one lap of the circuit but on landing the plane made contact with a sand-filled ditch causing it to tip over, pinning Cody to the ground. He escaped unhurt and although there was very little flying activity during the two weeks of the air show, spectators witnessed Cody swearing an oath of allegiance to the King as he became a British citizen. As an American, Cody had been unable to compete in many of the British flying competition and events. The 1910 Michelin Cup involved an all-British flyer completing the greatest overall distance in a closed circuit by the end of the year. There was a £500 cash prize and £500 trophy for the winner. The race was really between three men: Cody, Thomas Sopwith and Alec Ogilvie. Cody's first attempt at the prize covered a distance of 92 miles, which was bettered by Sopworth's 107 miles. Cody rose to the challenge by flying a distance of 115 miles. Ogilvie then went one further by recording a distance of 139 miles. Cody's response was an incredible distance of 189.2 miles, a new British record and Cody's first major prize. Cody's next big event was a 1,010-mile race around Britain. Although his Mk III Cathedral was much slower than the other competitors, it was extremely durable and reliable in comparison. The trip was not without its dramas. On the first leg of the journey Cody's water pipe burst forcing him to make an emergency landing in South Yorkshire. As he flew over Leeds his petrol tank sprung a leak forcing him down again and as Cody headed towards Newcastle he found himself surrounded by thick fog that forced him to land yet again. Cody had landed in a boggy field that made take-off extremely difficult and by the time he had succeeded in getting his plane airborne, he had effectively lost two days of flying. During the second week of the race Cody realized he had a good chance of making it home in third place and as the first Briton to complete the trip. This honour ultimately went to Jimmy Valentine but Cody was as determined as ever to complete the race. Cody touched down at Brooklands at 9am on the Saturday morning, two weeks after he set off. His arrival was so much earlier than expected the only person to meet him was Valentine who just happened to be on the airfield at the time. Despite the fact Cody was the last man home the public's admiration for him was immense. This was due largely to the fact his plane was 'homemade' in every sense of the word. In September and October 1911 Cody won both Michelin prizes available that year. The 'Series I' race involved a minimum flight of 250 miles to be registered by end of October. Cody completed distance of 255 miles in one single flight setting a new British record and winning the £500 prize and trophy. The 'Series II' Michelin race was awarded to the pilot who could cover a 125-mile cross-country circuit in the fastest time. Cody completed it in just over three hours and collected the £400 prize money. On 31 st July 1912 Military Flying Trials began at Salisbury Plain. The War Office offered a £4,000 cash prize for the best plane and a £1,000 cash prize for the best British plane manufactured. Cody's plane was one of thirty-two entered in the competition. The Military Trials were one of the most important events in British aviation history as it was the first time aircraft had been thoroughly tested. Each aircraft was tested for its reconnaissance ability, speed and efficiency. There were also a variety of flying tests and trials. Cody's Cathedral Mk III won both of the top prizes. Due largely to his success at Salisbury, the Royal Aero Club awarded Cody the Gold Medal, its highest honour, in the summer of 1912. Cody designed his water-plane for a coastal circuit of Great Britain with a £5,000 prize. It was a prototype for a water-plane that would be suitable for an Atlantic crossing meriting a £10,000 reward. It was to be the plane in which Cody would meet his death a week before the British coastal circuit began.

Accidents including fatal flight

Cody suffered from a number of accidents throughout his life, from cowboy stunts on the Western Plains of America to his untimely death in 1913. Even during his kiting days he did not escape unharmed. On one occasion in 1902 Cody fell from his man-lifting kite when it was hit by a sudden wind. He fell to the ground badly breaking his arm. Whilst he was grounded by his injury he spent the summer redesigning his kite to make it sturdier and therefore much safer. Cody almost drowned when he was testing kites for the Admiralty. He was involved in an exercise to see whether objects, such as mines, could be spotted beneath the water from the air. A freak wind knocked Cody and the kite into the water and Cody had to cling to the wreckage till he was rescued.

When Cody was taking a trainee pilot out in his new monoplane, in 1912, his interference with the controls caused the plane to lose control and hit the ground at approximately 75 miles per hour. Cody suffered a severe blow to the head from the tail wheel of the plane. Later that year Cody had another crash in the monoplane when the engine cut out suddenly at a height of 2000 feet. As he glided to earth the plane collided with a cow. Witnesses to the accident claimed the cow had charged the landing aircraft almost as a deliberate act of suicide. Cody's death occurred on 7 th August 1913 at Cove Common. Cody along with his passenger, WHB Evans, took off from Laffan's Plain for a brief early morning flight. As the plane passed over Ball Hill the wings crumpled and it's passengers were hurled to the ground. Death would have been instantaneous after a fall from almost 500 feet.

'I have received with profound regret the news of the death of Mr. Cody. I saw him on several occasions at Aldershot and always appreciated his dogged determination and dauntless courage...His loss will be much felt at Aldershot where he did so much for military aviation. Will you convey to Mrs. Cody and her sons my sincere sympathy with them in their sorrow.'

Telegram received from George V

Originally, Cody's family planned a private burial at a local church but General Haig and the War Office offered a plot at Thorn Hill Cemetery, Aldershot's Military Cemetery, which was usually reserved for officers and those with the highest military honours. His funeral was held on 11 th August 1913. Approximately 100,000 people lined the route from Ash Vale to Thorn Hill to pay their respects as the coffin passed by on a gun carriage of the Royal Engineers to its final resting place. Following Cody's death there were a number of theories surrounding the cause of the crash including rumours of spies and sabotage. As eyewitness accounts varied the inquest never reached a final verdict and eventually decided that there should be a full investigation carried out by the Royal Aero Club. The club claimed that a structural weakness in the aircraft was to blame but this was an opinion many of Cody's contemporaries were doubtful of. Theories still abound today.

Cody's Tree - in memoriam

As a memorial to Cody there is an aluminium replica of the beech tree that Cody used to tether his planes to whilst testing engine thrust on Laffan's Plain. The origins of the tree and its links to Cody are not clear; some doubt the tree's role in aviation history. The new aluminium tree is located outside the Cody Building of the Defence Evaluation Research Agency (DERA), the successor to the Royal Aircraft Establishment.

Cody, the man

'Often after a hard day's experiment when every effort failed I have taken an evening walk. The moon as bright as silver seemed to smile with triumph and whisper. The question may be asked, "Is this modern craze for aerial flight a disease that is catching lately?" Well I don't know really whether I am afflicted in this way, but I assure you my air ship is never out of my deepest thought.' Cody's diary, Nov 1901. Cody was very superstitious; hardly surprising given the risks he was taking. One of his fears was the colour green. He even went so far as to forbid any one to wear it in his presence. Cody also refused to start a new project on a Friday and would not use the number 13, replacing it with 12a. When Cody bought his first car in 1906 he drove the 25 miles back from London to Aldershot without ever having driven before. One of his passengers commented, 'All the way we were grazing carts and brick walls by hairbreadths, but Colonel Cody never turned a hair. He was laughing and joking as he gripped the steering wheel and experimented with various switches and levers ... We did reach Aldershot safely - ; I don't know how.'

'With his dramatic entrances and exits on his great biplanes, he [Cody] is the British public's chief and best-loved showman of flight.' Vanity Fair, 1911

'That is the right spirit, Mr. Cody, to pay no heed to your critics.' David Lloyd George, 1912 '

I have done very little to shout loud about, but still, I have accomplished one thing that I hoped for very much, that is, to be the first man to fly in Great Britain.' Samuel Cody, 8 th December 1908

'When my time comes, I hope my death will be swift and sudden, death from one of my own aeroplanes.' Samuel Cody

'He was my King - my all.' Mrs. Lela Cody, 1932