By JOHN HULLS
With Illustrations by David Weitzman
A REVIEW BY WALTER J. BOYNE
Published by Crown Publishers, New York 2003, $16.95
Author John Hulls has produced the best book on an often over-looked hero of aviation, Samuel F. Cody, who on October 16, 1908, became the first man to fly a powered aircraft in England. There have been some treatments of Cody in the past, but none of them really explained the aeronautical achievements of a man who followed his own star, and whose aviation progress was based on careful experimentation and much practical experience.
The year 2003 has seen a tremendous-and too long delayed–celebration of the achievements of the Wright Brothers, and rightly so, for the two men advanced aviation by a decade through their persistence and ingenuity. One reason for the long delay in widespread recognition of the Wright brothers was their relative lack of color. There was no denying their great achievement, but the two men were by nature reticent, Orville even more so than Wilbur. Orville never spoke in public and, particularly after Wilbur’s death in 1912, led a quiet if not quite reclusive life.
Samuel F. Cody was as colorful as the Wrights were quiet, and in author Hulls adroit hands, the story of his exploits add a new and vibrant chapter to early aviation.
One of the best ways to tell how good a book is to see how much fun the author had in writing it, and it is apparent that Hulls vastly enjoyed telling the tale of Cody’s rise from obscurity to dominating the aviation scene in Great Britain. Claiming to be born in Birdsville, Texas in 1867, Cody tried his hand as a rancher, learning the basic skills of horsemanship, roping and shooting that he would parlay into a career. (As the author points out, it is hard to separate Cody’s stage publicity from his true past.)
Instinctively a showman, Cody did not hesitate to capitalize on the similarity of his name and appearance to that of Buffalo Bill Cody, whose “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” had wowed Eastern audiences for years.
Samuel Cody prospected for gold in Alaska and busted broncos in San Antonio, but it was in a buckskin-fringed jacket that he earned a living while traveling in Europe, engaging in races and marksmanship contests. Eventually Cody wrote a play “The Klondike Nugget” in which he and his family starred. He toured England with the play, earning enough to keep his actor family happy. The play allowed Cody to return to a life-long passion for kites, which he had been taught to build and fly by an old Chinese cook when he worked as a teenage cowhand on the Abilene trail.
In 1899, Cody became interested in developing man lifting kites, believing they could be used by the British Army for artillery observation. Flying in kite contests with Major B.F.S. Baden-Powell (brother of the Boy Scout’s founder) and other members of the Imperial War College and Royal Meteorological Society, Cody constructed a series of huge box kites that flew very well. He developed the box kites into a long series of experimental winged kites that embodied some of the same “cellular” features employed by Alexander Graham Bell in his research in Canada.
Cody also developed a cable and winch system that permitted the huge kites to be safely launched and controlled from the ground. He soon devised a chain of kites that was able to lift a man off the ground, suspended in a wicker basket hung from a lifting kite that flew up and down the line by altering the pitch of the kite, all under the control of the operator. He patented this, the first practical controllable kite system, in October, 1901. His wife Lela took to the air in 1902, perhaps the first woman to fly in a heavier-than-air machine.
There followed a series of remarkable successes, including flying an instrumented kite for the Royal Meteorological Society to a height of 14,000 feet. The feat was possible only because of Cody’s ingenious winch, which enabled him to reel out no less than three miles of cable.
Not content with being first in heavier than air-flight, Cody also initiated naval aviation, flying on board a kite launched from a British destroyer in 1902.
Brevet Lieutenant Colonel John Edward Capper, who would become a leading advocate of flight in Great Britain, became interested in Cody’s work. (Capper visited to the Wright Brothers in 1904 in an abortive try to purchase the Wright Flyer for England. The bureaucracy swallowed the attempt, but the meeting lead to a life-long friendship between Capper and the Wrights). It was Capper who suggested to Cody that the next step was heavier than air free-flight, first with gliders, and then under power.
Cody’s experience in flying the man-carrying gliders led him to believe that an engine could be substituted for the pull of the kite cable, and that his basic kite configuration could be made to fly. Unfortunately he encountered the inevitable bureaucratic resistance by the War Office. Then in late December, there came word that Orville and Wilbur Wright had flown at Kitty Hawk.
The author is at his best detailing how Cody eventually gave up the theater to devote himself full time to aviation, in part in training British soldiers how to use his kites for artillery observation, then working with Col. Capper to build the first British powered dirigible, the Nulli Secundus, but more importantly, designing, building and flying the British Army Airplane # 1. Powered by an Antoinette engine, Cody made the first ever aircraft flight in Great Britain on October 16, 1908. He went on to a stellar career, building improved versions of his aircraft, and winning several Michelin Trophies. In 1912, he won the first British Military Trials, but sadly, crashed to his death in 1913 in the Cody VI. On his drafting board were the plans for a gigantic Cody VII, which he intended to fly across the Atlantic to the United States.
The book is ideal for both the aviation enthusiast as well as readers of all ages interested in the centenary of flight. The book contains a wonderful selection of photographs, many never published before, depicting nearly every key aspect of Cody’s aviation career. A pilot himself, Hulls captures the nuance of the early flights with a clarity that makes the risk and challenge very real. If you are not already an expert on Cody-and few are-you owe it to yourself to get this book and learn the facts about another pioneer American who gave his all for flight and for Great Britain.