CHAPTER XXXI. The Romance of a Cowboy Aeronaut
In the brief but glorious history of pioneer work in aviation, so far as it applies to this country, there is scarcely a more romantic figure to be found than Colonel Cody. It was the writer's pleasure to come into close contact with Cody during the early years of his experimental work with man-lifting box-kites at the Alexandra Park, London, and never will his genial smile and twinkling eye be forgotten.
Cody always seemed ready to crack a joke with anyone, and possibly there was no more optimistic man in the whole of Britain. To the boys and girls of Wood Green he was a popular hero. He was usually clad in a "cowboy" hat, red flannel shirt, and buckskin breeches, and his hair hung down to his shoulders. On certain occasions he would give a "Wild West" exhibition at the Alexandra Palace, and one of his most daring tricks with the gun was to shoot a cigarette from a lady's lips. One could see that he was entire master of the rifle, and a trick which always brought rounds of applause was the hitting of a target while standing with his back to it, simply by the aid of a mirror held at the butt of his rifle.
But it is of Cody as an aviator and aeroplane constructor that we wish to speak. For some reason or other he was generally the object of ridicule, both in the Press and among the public. Why this should have been so is not quite clear; possibly his quaint attire had something to do with it, and unfriendly critics frequently raised a laugh at his expense over the enormous size of his machines. So large were they that the Cody biplane was laughingly called the "Cody bus" or the "Cody Cathedral."
But in the end Cody fought down ridicule and won fame, for in competition with some of the finest machines of the day, piloted by some of our most expert airmen, he won the prize of L5000 offered by the Government in 1912 in connection with the Army trials for aeroplanes. In these trials he astonished everyone by obtaining a speed of over 70 miles an hour in his biplane, which weighed 2600 pounds.
In the opening years of the present century Cody spent much time in demonstrations with huge box-kites, and for a time this form of kite was highly popular with boys of North London. In these kites he made over two hundred flights, reaching, on some occasions, an altitude of over 2000 feet. At all times of the day he could have been seen on the slopes of the Palace Hill, hauling these strange-looking, bat-like objects backward and forward in the wind. Reports of his experiments appeared in the Press, but Cody was generally looked upon as a "crank". The War Office, however, saw great possibilities in the kites for scouting purposes in time of war, and they paid Cody L5000 for his invention.
It is a rather romantic story of how Cody came to take up experimental work with kites, and it is repeated as it was given by a Mohawk chief to a newspaper representative.
"On one occasion when Cody was in a Lancashire town with his Wild West show, his son Leon went into the street with a parrot-shaped kite. Leon was attired in a red shirt, cowboy trousers, and sombrero, and soon a crowd of youngsters in clogs was clattering after him.
"'If a boy can interest a crowd with a little kite, why can't a man interest a whole nation?' thought Cody - and so the idea of man-lifting kites developed."
In 1903 Cody made a daring but unsuccessful attempt to cross the Channel in a boat drawn by two kites. Had he succeeded he intended to cross the Atlantic by similar means.
Later on, Cody turned his attention to the construction of aeroplanes, but he was seriously handicapped by lack of funds. His machines were built with the most primitive tools, and some of our modern constructors, working in well-equipped "shops", where the machinery is run by electric plant, would marvel at the work accomplished with such tools as those used by Cody.
Most of Cody's flights were made on Laffan's Plain, and he took part in the great "Round Britain" race in 1911. It was characteristic of the man that in this race he kept on far in the wake of MM. Beaumont and Vedrines, though he knew that he had not the slightest chance of winning the prize; and, days after the successful pilot had arrived back at Brooklands, Cody's "bus" came to earth in the aerodrome. "It's dogged as does it," he remarked, "and I meant to do the course, even if I took a year over it."
Of Cody's sad death at Farnborough, when practising in the ill-fated water-plane which he intended to pilot in the sea flight round Great Britain in 1913, we speak in a later chapter.