Book Review: Colonel Cody and the Flying Cathedral

Colonel Cody and the Flying Cathedral

Jenkins, Garry

Picador USA, NY, 1999

Subtitled “The Adventures of the Cowboy who Conquered the Sky”

This book was lent to me by a friend’s uncle during a visit to his house while on a work trip at the “Cody Technology Park” on the grounds of Farnborough airport in England.  I was describing our initial navigational difficulties in finding the proper gatehouse when he interrupted and asked if I knew who Cody was, then handed me this book by way of a response to my confused look.

The subtitle is apt.  My expectation when starting the book was that it would mainly deal with flying, and I was not expecting the long time it would take before anything resembling an airplane was mentioned.  Despite that, the book was interesting from a biographical vantage and the topic of early English aviation new to me, both of which lead to a reserved recommendation.

So who was Cody?  Apparently one of those rare individuals whose bad breaks lead to spectacularly good breaks and who is societally unencumbered sufficiently to follow those at the opportune moment.

Briefly, a kid from Iowa runs west and advances through the frontier cowboy life sufficiently distinct in “cowboy skills” to be a desired participant in “Wild West” shows.  After a few seasons of trick-riding and pistol tricks along the East coast he opts to try Europe, first as a supporting act and eventually on his own.  He becomes a celebrity by riding horses in races with bicyclists and winning, as well as for the play he and his family put on.

He becomes interested in kites and creates a system capable of carrying humans, which the British Military eventually takes notice of and begins to work with (but mainly against) him.  He finds himself designing an airship, and then an airplane. Plenty of intrigue and red tape later he becomes the first person to fly in England, then takes English citizenship during England’s first airshow. As the commoner (and not just any commoner, a former American cowboy sub-commoner) moving in the circles of officers and aristocrats, he captivates the public attention and  becomes the focal point for British aviation.  Fittingly, just as he begins to receive the rewards for his efforts he dies in a crash.

The connection to the Technology park name?  That general area was where he did much of his development.

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