Naval Kite Trials      English Channel Crossing


SF Cody - Image - Drachen Foundation
©The Drachen Foundation

  It is not known why or when Cody first became interested in kite flying.  The stories of Cody being taught to fly kites by the Chinese cook on the cattle trail, must I think, be treated with caution.  The first reference found, so far, to his experiments in England is at a kite exhibition held in Carlisle in April 1899, where he flew kites ‘of immense size and square shaped, sent up in tandem fashion one after another on strong steel piano wire.  The third or fourth kite had a seat slung from it in which a man sat’. 

   Around this period Cody and his family would be found performing their play ‘The Klondyke Nugget’ in theatres in the evening and during the day giving kite exhibitions, cleverly providing publicity for both ventures.  The members of his travelling show, which included several relations needed to be versatile as they were called upon to not only act, paint and shift scenery, but also to cut out and sew the material for the kites and later to help fly them. When performing in Glasgow, Cody resorted to perching on the roof of the theatre in order to shout instructions to his assistants on the ground who were flying his kites, and to explain to the bewildered crowd watching from below the principles of his invention.

   Disaster struck in October 1899 in a theatre in St. Helens, when a fire destroyed the best part of Cody’s theatrical and kiting equipment, for which he was not insured.  He made a quick recovery with regards to his theatrical work but it took a year to replace his kites.

SF Cody - Kites   Cody’s kites were a variation on the Hargrave box kite and the American Blue Hill Meteorological kites to which he added wings and horns for added stability which produced the unmistakable shape of a ‘Cody’.  The covering material used was primarily silk while the cross stay supports were made of bamboo in the smaller kites and American hickory, because of its strength, in the larger ones.  His primary interest lay in man-lifting and multiple kite systems.  To this end he devised a system for sending up a train of kites on a single line, flying first a small pilot kite used to steady and guide the line, followed by a variable number of lifter kites, (the number depending on the strength of the wind) and finally the carrier kite.  The carrier supported a basket or chair for a passenger who was able to control the ascent and descent by working a system of lines and brakes.

SF Cody - Kites
© John Roberts
   At the start of the Boer War, Cody conceived the idea of using his kites for military observation purposes as an alternative to captive balloons which, unlike kites, could not be deployed in strong winds.  By 1901 he felt he had perfected his man-lifting system sufficiently to approach the British War Office to whom he wrote in that October- ‘I believe I possess certain secrets which could be of use to the government in the way of kite flying.’ A month later he wrote again-‘Just a line to inform you I am about to attempt some kite or flying machine experiments using a kite of my own invention called the Viva kite similar to the American Blue Box Hill kite…’

While waiting for the War Office to muster some enthusiasm for his kites he engaged in a number of meteorological experiments in Newcastle which resulted, in 1902, in his becoming a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society.  During one such experiment, held on the 5 September 1902, a record breaking British altitude of 14,000 feet was reached.

   A series of Naval Kite Trials were held in 1903 with the result that four sets of his kites were ordered by the Admiralty.  A further series of Admiralty kite trials took place in 1908.  Kite experiments now took precedence over theatre work, signified   by the change in Cody’s letter head from ‘Klondyke Nugget Co.’ to ‘Inventor of War-Kite as supplied to British Navy.’  Probably with publicity in mind Cody planned and carried out an English Channel Crossing in a Berthon Boat, pulled by one of his kites.

SF Cody - Kites   In 1904 Cody was asked by the Army to bring his kites to Aldershot, the home of the British Army.  After successful demonstrations he was, in the following year given the first of several short term contracts as the Army’s official Kite Instructor.  Under his watchful eye and tutelage a large number of ascents were made by military personnel of the Royal Engineers.  In 1906 Cody was made responsible for the design and manufacture of kites at the Balloon Factory and Instructor at the Balloon School.  His two year contract for this appointment stated that… ‘Mr. Cody’s status is that of an Officer of His Majesty’s Army, though he has no military command.  He is to be treated as an officer, as becoming the status in which he has been engaged, by all employees at the Factory.’   Although a reasonably large number of kite photographs of the period exists, technical information on them is limited because of the secrecy with which they were surrounded.  Among other things Cody had to agree not to pass kite information to any foreign powers.

   The flying of kites quickly became a matter of routine within the Army but after a relatively short period the advent of the aeroplane rendered them obsolete.  Nevertheless, as late as 1912 four sets of Cody kites were maintained in readiness in case of war.  As these kites aged they were transferred into ‘peace stock’   and replaced by four new sets of equipment for use when the ‘weather was not propitious for the use of aeroplanes.’

   In 1938 experiments were undertaken at the Royal Aircraft Factory, Farnborough, to evaluate the use of kites as an alternative to balloons for anti-aircraft barrages.  Several versions of the Cody kite were used, these being designed by Vivian Cody who worked in the fabrics department at the factory.  Experiments were conducted in all wind conditions using balloons in low winds and Cody kites only in high winds thus managing to maintain a continuous barrage.  Nothing came of these experiments although a large number of kites were produced and several examples survive in various museums in the UK today.

   Interest in the Cody kite has never waned in the intervening decades.  It is seen as a classic type by todays kite flyers and its familiar bat shape is a common sight at kite festivals around the world.

SF Cody - Kites - Courtesy of The Drachen Foundation
© The Drachen Foundation                                         © The Drachen Foundation


Naval Kite Trials

English Channel Crossing      Top of Page

SF Cody - Naval Kites - The Drachen Foundation
© The Drachen Foundation
   On Woolwich Common on the 12 and 13 March 1903, Cody flew his eight ft. black silk kite and his seventeen ft. calico man lifter watched by representatives of the British Admiralty.  Captain Reginald Tupper (Assistant Director of Naval Ordnance) wrote in his report of the display – ‘This is quite the best kind of kite I have seen, and I have every reason to think it will be of use for supporting an aerial wire for W/T purposes, and that it can easily be handled and flown from the deck of a ship or even small craft.  I have no hesitation in recommending a trial.’

The interest of Prince Louis of Battenburg, the Director of Naval Intelligence was engaged and he proposed that kite tests should be carried out for the purposes of ‘a) Lifting an aerial wire for [wireless] telegraphy both ashore and afloat and b) Lifting a man to a considerable height from a ship under weigh for reconnoitring purposes.’

SF Cody - Naval Kites - The Drachen Foundation
© The Drachen Foundation
Cody and his team arrived in Portsmouth on the 29 March and trials began on the following day at the RN Gunnery Training School (HMS Excellent) on Whale Island in Portsmouth Harbour.  Two days of land based trials on the island were followed by three days of shipboard trials, initially in harbour in the old ironclad Hector and later, at sea, in the destroyer Starfish.  At this time Hector formed part of HMS Vernon – the Royal Navy’s torpedo school which, apart from its normal duties, was presently engaged in the development of wireless telegraphy.  Consequently, these later tests concentrated on the possible use of kites for the lifting of wireless aerials for long range communication but also included trials for visual signalling.  The tests were concluded on the 4 April with additional flights from Whale Island.

   A very favourable report was issued on these trials which included the comment that Cody’s kites… ‘are immensely superior to any kites previously tried here.’

A second week of trials concentrating on man lifting for aerial observation began on the 13 April with a flight from Whale Island.  Vivian Cody was taken aloft but a squall affected a change in wind direction and brought down the whole array.  To everyone’s surprise Vivian was unhurt.  The wind was not steady enough for flying on the following two days and it was not until 16 April that the trials went to sea on the naval tug Seahorse.  The pilot kite and two lifters were launched successfully but a squall brought the whole system down into the water.  The weather improved on the following day but only a 140lb weight could be lifted.  The trials concluded on the 18 April.

   The Admiralty were impressed by what they had seen but were somewhat astonished when they received a letter from Cody offering his services and his kites to the Navy for a sum of £25,000 plus a salary of £1,250 per annum, six weeks vacation a year and at the end of his engagement a further £25,000.  They decided to decline his offer even though Cody subsequently offered to lower these charges.

   In 1908 the Navy again asked Cody to take part in kite trials at Portsmouth.  The timing was somewhat inconvenient because Cody was just in the process of putting the finishing touches to his Army Aeroplane No 1a.  In May two Petty Officers and four leading seamen had arrived at Farnborough to embark on a training course under Cody.  No record has been found on the nature of this training but photographic evidence shows them helping him with his unfinished aeroplane.

SF Cody - Naval Kites - The Defence Evaluation Research Agency
© Defence Evaluation Research Agency
   The seagoing trials began on 17 August and between that date and 7 October kites were flown on nineteen days.  The ships employed were the battleship Revenge, the cruiser Grafton and the destroyers Fervent and Recruit.  The purpose of these trials was to test the practical applications of man lifting kites for naval purposes i.e. signalling, photography, detection of underwater objects, general observation and the spotting of gunfire. Detailed daily reports were kept and the report for the 31 August is particularly interesting.  On this day a flight was made from HMS Recruit, to determine if mines could be detected from the air.  The kite basket, with Cody in it, was at a height of about 800 feet when the carrier and then the lifter kites suddenly took a dive to the right.  They all recovered but then dived again and the basket hit the water and turned over.  Cody dived out and held onto the basket for support.  The destroyer had meanwhile turned back and soon picked him up, none the worse for his ducking.  Two days later Cody was back in the air but this time suspended not in a basket but in a breeches buoy.  Among the experiments carried out was one to establish if a breeches buoy would float with a man in it – the volunteer for this was most probably Cody.  This test proved successful but as it was thought the buoy was capable of being capsized, a little lead was put in each foot. 

   On 4 September Cody returned to Farnborough, where his aeroplane was nearing completion, but he returned to Portsmouth once more on the 30 September for the last week of seagoing trials.  The last trial with Cody present took place on the 7 October and later trials took place without him.  Among these were tests carried out in October and December employing magnesium flares (supplied by J Pain the famous fireworks manufacturer) for night illumination.  These trials carried out aboard HMS Grafton in Portsmouth harbour, were aimed at testing the value of such equipment for defence against torpedo boats approaching under cover of darkness.  The idea was not pursued primarily because the kite could not be positioned as required and the flares lit up the potential target better than the attacker.

   The Royal Navy’s interest in kites was short lived as the potential gains were overtaken by improvements in gun control methods, wireless communication and later the introduction of airships and aircraft.  In addition a warship was far from an ideal environment for these relatively delicate (in naval terms) constructions and the few kite systems the Navy did purchase were subject to a high level of damage and loss.  The Army on the other hand were much more successful with kites- apart from the advantage of fixed dry land operation they had Cody himself to train their kite teams.


English Channel Crossing

Top of Page       Naval Kite Trials

SF Cody   On several occasions, Cody had used kites to pull various craft through the water.  In February, 1903 he had hoped to sail in a small punt about 14 feet long and 6 feet wide from Kingsdown, Ireland to Hollyhead on the mainland.  If this had succeeded a photographer would, no doubt, have been on hand to capture the moment, but no such record exists.  That same year, on the Thames near Gravesend, he had sailed for four hours in a boat pulled by a kite and in 1906 he repeated this experiment in a motor boat at the Crystal Palace.  However, his most famous exploit of this type took place in the winter of 1903 when he crossed the English Channel in a Berthon collapsible boat.

SF Cody   His initial plan was for a voyage from Dover to Calais and, with publicity in mind, he asked a reporter from the Daily Mail to accompany him.  On the morning of the day that they were due to sail, Cody had attached a couple of ‘life-lines’ to the boat on which were strung a number of wooden balls.  ‘You see’ he remarked to his passenger ‘if we are capsized we can catch these if the boat does not go past us too quickly, and we shall be dragged to France with our heads out of the water.’  The reporter remarked that this was very thoughtful and then proceeded into town to obtain a life-belt.  For the voyage Cody donned yellow oilskins and his ever present broad-rimmed cowboy hat.  Provisions were something of an after thought and consisted of bottled ale and some chocolate. The boat took to the water and under the tow of two kites proceeded well until a drop in the wind brought the kites down.  The tide began to take them in the direction of the Goodwin Sands.  The situation did not look good – Cody inflated his life jacket and the reporter said he ‘unloosed my boot laces.’ 

SF Cody   On the 5 November Cody arrived on the beach at Dover to attempt another crossing but found the wind was blowing in the wrong direction.  He therefore took the boat and kite on the 11am mail boat to Calais where, at 7.30pm, he launched his boat ‘Lela’ and, pulled by his two year old kite ‘Old Faithful’, set course for England.  Good progress was made to begin with but at one point he found himself once again drifting towards the Goodwin Sands.  The wind had dropped causing the kite to descend rapidly so this was hauled onto the boat and the bridle lashed to the masthead.  Eventually Ramsgate was sighted and, as the wind had freshened, the kite was put up again.  Just off Dover the kite again dropped and had to be lashed to the mast but at 8.30 in the morning of the 6th he landed, cold and tired, on the beach at Dover.

SF Cody
© The Drachen Foundation
   Not one to miss an opportunity for publicity he accepted the offer to appear at the London Pavilion Music Hall to give a lecture on his Channel crossing and appeared with ‘boat, kite, costume and appliances used in his daring experiment.’

Welcome to


Presented here is a brief summary of the life and achievements of Samuel Franklin Cody (1867–1913), showman, kite developer and aviator; a man of greatly diverse talents and for me a subject of abiding fascination.

S F is based on the information I have gathered during many years of research.

There are, however, still many gaps in the story and further information & comments would be very welcome.

So please feel free to e-mail me