A One-Time Wild West Showman Achieves an Aviation Milestone in the United Kingdom

October 16, 1908

An American made what is officially recognized as the first controlled, powered, and sustained heavier-than-air flight in the United Kingdom. Samuel Franklin (S.F.) Cody achieved this milestone when he piloted British Army Aeroplane No. 1, which he designed and built, off the ground in the town of Farnborough in southeastern England.

Cody had been born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1867. His original last name was Cowdery, but he eventually replaced it with Cody. He apparently assumed that new last name because of his strong admiration for William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, a former U.S. Army soldier and bison hunter who achieved worldwide fame for organizing and performing in extravagant shows that featured various Wild West themes.

When he was 21, the similarly flamboyant S.F. Cody began touring the United States as a performer in the western frontier component of Forepaugh’s Circus. This traveling circus was owned and operated by Adam Forepaugh, who was one of P.T. Barnum’s biggest competitors.

Just a couple of years after joining Forepaugh’s Circus, S.F. Cody traveled to England to perform his own Wild West-themed shows there and elsewhere in Europe. Cody ultimately made England his new home.

Sometime around 1900, Cody developed an interest in aviation. He initially worked on creating kites that were large and strong enough to lift humans into the air. Within a few years, Cody’s efforts on behalf of human flight also involved helping with the production of airships and observation balloons.

With the backing of the War Office (a department of the British government between 1857 and 1964), Cody focused on developing planes as well. After constructing British Army Aeroplane No. 1 and equipping it with a 50-horsepower (37-kilowatt) Antoinette engine, he initiated tests on this aircraft. These tests started out as nothing more than quick “hops” off the ground. On October 16 of that year, though, Cody was able to take the plane both higher and farther than before. His plane reached a height of approximately 18 feet (5.5 meters) and covered a distance of approximately 1,400 feet (426 meters) during the 30 seconds in which it was in the air.

While this flight has been widely acknowledged as an important British aviation achievement, it was also potentially fatal for Cody after a strong gust of wind hit the plane and caused it to crash. Cody somehow managed to survive that mishap without any serious injuries. Tragically, however, he lost his life five years later in the vicinity of Farnborough while test-flying his aircraft known as the Cody Floatplane. The plane broke apart at 300 feet (90 meters) in the air, and both Cody and his passenger William Evans fell to their deaths.

Notwithstanding the circumstances of his untimely demise, Cody continues to be honored for such noteworthy airborne accomplishments as his pioneering 1908 flight. One of those memorials to Cody is a statue of him that was erected in Farnborough in 2013. 

For more information on Samuel Franklin Cody and his aviation legacy, please check out https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-hampshire-23591409

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