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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Cowboy Who Became the Father of British Aviation

by Clay Coppedge
One of the many great things about America is that it has always been a place where people can reinvent themselves. Franklin Samuel Cowdery adopted the more marketable moniker of Samuel Franklin Cody and used the name to fly his way into history books. He claimed Birdville, Texas as his birthplace because it was a neat fit with his image as a cowboy aviator, but he was actually born in Davenport, Iowa in 1867. He became an aviation pioneer, sure enough, but in the decidedly non-cowboy country of England.

Cody's place in the history books comes as the first person to make a powered airplane flight in England, earning him recognition as The Father of British Aviation. That much we know, but the comes mostly from an unreliable autobiography. We know he was an expert rider, roper and marksman and that he starred in his own Wild West Shows in this country and in England, where he settled. The public often confused him for Wild West legend Buffalo Bill Cody. Far from correcting the misinformation, he made it a point to dress like Buffalo Bill, right down to the same moustache and goatee.

Cody spent a considerable part of his early days in Texas, where he claims a Chinese chuckwagon cook built a giant kite for him when he was a cowboy on the Chisholm Trail in 1875. That's where he said the idea of building a kite big enough to carry a person at a considerable height and for a considerable distance first came to him, though he also related other stories about how he became interested in the science of flight that had nothing to do with a Chinese chuckwagon cook.

There's another story about how his family was victim of a Sioux raid when he was but a wee lad that has him escaping certain death by crawling nine miles to Fort Worth Military Hospital. He (allegedly) went prospecting in Alaska and definitely wrote the plays "The "Klondyke Nugget" and "Wild Alaska" about his (alleged) experiences.

Exploiting his adopted name of Cody to the fullest, the former Frank Cowdery joined Adam D. Forepaugh's Wild West Show as "Captain Cody, King of the Cowboys" and later joined Annie Oakley's show. He married Maud Lee in Pennsylvania in 1889 and the couple arrived in England as Buffalo Bill's Son and Daughter. The real Buffalo Bill threatened legal action, and the couple broke up. Two years later he began touring once again with a new leading lady who would become his second wife and never had to pretend she was his sister.

At some point, either on the Chisholm Trail, in England or elsewhere, Cody had developed a strong interest in making big man-lifting kites. His contemporaries thought him eccentric at best, a crank at worst. The British Navy was less skeptical and allowed him to develop weather kites, an accomplishment that earned him a fellowship in the Royal Meteorological Society. One of Cody's kites flew 14,000 feet high, a world record at the time, and he helped develop and pilot an airship - a dirigible - 50 miles, another landmark in British Aviation. These things actually happened.

On October 16, 1908, at Farnborough, England, Cody flew the Army Aeroplane No. 1, which he also designed, for about half a minute at an altitude of 30 to 40 feet. That was the first powered flight in England, and the feat earned him the same high regard in England as the Wright Brothers had in this country. He turned out to have a certain flair for aeronautical design along with the courage and conviction to try them out himself. He survived all of his many crashes except the last one.

A float plane he planned to use in a crossing of the Atlantic crashed during a test flight in 1913, putting an end to a life and career that was noteworthy even without the autobiographical embellishment. A large monument at Britain's Farnborough Aviation Center honors Cody for his achievements as the "Father of British Aviation."

In the end, Samuel Franklin Cody's story was one even he couldn't have made up.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" October 4, 2018 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Wrong Way Corrigan 9-26-18
  • The First Rodeo 9-2-18
  • Randolph Marcy Got Around 8-17-18
  • Three-Legged Willie Stood Tall 8-4-18
  • The Horse George Childress Rode In On 7-16-16

    See more »

  • Related Topics:
    Texas Aviators
    Columns
    Texas Towns
    Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Wrong Way Corrigan 9-26-18
  • The First Rodeo 9-2-18
  • Randolph Marcy Got Around 8-17-18
  • Three-Legged Willie Stood Tall 8-4-18
  • The Horse George Childress Rode In On 7-16-16

    See more »


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