Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Head on over to Dark Roasted Blend for our newest article, this time on some crazy (or brilliant) early aircraft pioneers.

As the old saying goes: "If at first you don't succeed." But there's also the saying: "The line between genius and insanity is a fine one." In the case of aeronautics the success of early pioneers like Gustave Whitehead, Alexander Feodorovich Mozhaiski, Clement Ader, and - of course - those bicycle mechanics from Ohio seem to have been a combination of both trying a lot and being a bit nuts.

We remember Whitehead, Mozhaiski, Ader, and the Wright Brothers because they did what they sought out to do, with varying degrees of victory: get themselves into the air. Alas, there is a while world of people who kind of, sort of, just barely did the same - or even sometimes not at all. But certainly not for a lack of trying.

Like with whole actually flew, what actually counts as flying is a matter of debate. The Wrights took their bows for the first heavier-than-air controlled flight, but there were a lot of other inventors who flew, but didn't have any control. For instance:

* In 1848, for instance, John Stringfellow flew a short distance in a steam-powered craft - wowing the crowds at London's Crystal Palace.
* Jean-Marie Le Bris is credited as flying higher than where he lifted off from by using a the very terrestrial power source of a horse to pull his elegant glider into the air. This was in 1856
* The affor-mentioned Clement Ader made his way into the record by taking his Avion III more than 30 feet in 1897 - but it depends on who you talk to as what he did is a matter of some debate.

Then there's the inventors who flew machines that were (sort of) controlled but not exactly heavier than air”

• The legendary Montgolfier brothers were the kings of the skies for a long time, notably around the middle seventeen hundreds, when their hot air balloons gave people their first taste of flight.
• Jean-Pierre Blanchard did the brothers one better by adding a motor to a balloon – though it was a hand-cranked one.
• Henri Giffard, in 1852, added steam to a balloon making, for many people, the first true powered airship.

But then there’s one special person who not only tried and tried again but who also skated very near that edge separating brilliant and nuts: the man who flew without power, without much control, and heavier than air.

Ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages, I give you the flamboyant, the amazing, the possibly-crazy Samuel Franklin Cody!

What Cody flew isn’t all that new, but his showmanship and dedication to his own unique way of defying gravity certainly is. The Chinese, after all, had been putting men into the skies with kites for a long time (just read Sun Tzu's The Art of War), but Cody was a human-kite flying zealot.

Cody – who took his moniker from that other great showman Buffalo Bill Cody – went from a music hall and wild west show star to sky when he became fascinated by the idea of using human-carrying kites in all kinds of unique and imaginative ways.

Determined not to just talk a good game, Cody used his natural flamboyance to drive the point home: around the turn of the century he crossed the English channel in one … though it was towed by a boat the whole way. In 1906 Cody was tasked by the British Army to develop his kites for military uses and soon was using his designs to set world records like getting a kite to a incredible 1,600 feet. So impressed with the Brits with Cody’s kites they used them successfully during the first world war to spy on the Germans – until airplanes became more reliable and Cody’s kites were shelved.

Not to be undone, Cody mixed power and kits and began to leave the ground, and his tow-rope, behind. In 1908 he created his imaginatively created named British Army Aeroplane No 1 and successfully flew it an impressive 1,390 feet – which, according to some, was the first heavier than air flight in Britain.

Cody went on to become a real legend in the early days of flight, winning the Michelin Cup in 1910 and an military flying contest one year later.

A perfect capper to his larger-than-life career with kites and then planes Cody met his end at the controls of one of his machines. In 1913, while flying his unique seaplane, he and a passenger were killed.

Even though he is sometimes cruelly dismissed as just a showman, Cody deserves respect and admiration – one of those early fliers who never gave up, and who used their crazy brilliance to get them higher than anyone had been before.

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