The Owl of Death
According to snappily titled best-seller the Comprehensive Mirror of History for Aid in Government, or Zi Zhi Tong Juan, written in the eleventh century AD, five-hundred years earlier the son of deposed emperor, Yuan Lang, was flown by a Crazy Flying Machine that is kite for a mile and half.
In 559 AD Yuan Huangtou was sentenced to death by Gao Yang, who had installed himself as Emperor Wenxuan nine years previously.
Along with several other prisoners Yuan Huangtou was taken to the top of the Golden Phoenix Tower, in the ancient city of Ye (in what’s now Hebei Province, China) and strapped into huge bird-shaped flying apparatus.
In a cruel parody of the Buddhist ritual of fangsheng (放生), or ‘liberation of all living things’, the prisoners were then forced to leap from the 33m (108 feet) high tower.
Unsurprisingly all the prisoners plummeted to their death, with the exception of Yuan Huangtou who glided 2.5 km (1.55 miles) through the air before landing unscathed on a road leading to the city.
Despite his death-defying feat of early aviation, Yuan Huangtou’s good fortune seems to have run out there. He was imprisoned once again and starved to death in the same tower from which he had so miraculously taken flight.
The War Kite
Oh no, not the war kites! Anything but the kites of war!
If it seems unlikely that an object more usually associated with windswept holidays on British beaches could have military applications, then consider that the career of early manned-flight pioneer Samuel Franklin Cody was anything but a likely one.
Cody was a Wild West showman, who started out as an American cowboy and over the course of a colourful life made major contributions British military aviation, before dying in a plane crash at the age of fourty-six.
Born in Iowa, USA in 1867 he left school aged just twelve years old and found work on cattle ranches and as a some-time gold prospector.
By 1888 he was touring circuses and a year later had married his wife, Maud, who joined him in his shooting act. The couple came to England in 1890s, where their Wild West show met with considerable success but following an accident Maud developed a morphine addiction, which combined with the onset of possible schizophrenia resulted in her returning to the USA alone a few years later.
Cody remained in London with his new partner Mrs Elizabeth King, the wife of a pub landlord who the couple had initially befriended when they’d first arrived in England.
Cody and Mrs King – who adopted the name Lela Marie Cody, although the marriage was never formalised – continued to tour Music Halls, along with her sons who joined the act.
These shows were successful enough that Cody was able to finance his passion; developing beautifully sophisticated kites capable of carrying human passengers.
In 1901 Cody even offered his design for a manned kite to the British War Office, for use in the Second Boer War.
He organised practical demonstrations of his man-carrying kites in locations across London, sometimes reaching heights of 1000 feet (305m) and once even crossed the English Channel carried by a kite flown from the deck of a ship.
Eventually he was able to interest the British Army in the reconnaissance potential of his War Kites and was appointed Chief Instructor of Kiting for the military Balloon School in Aldershot.
Cody soon turned his attention to aeroplanes. In 1907 the Army backed Cody in developing a powered craft, which was to become British Army Aeroplane No 1.
His flight of 16 October 1908 is recognised as the first official flight of a piloted heavier-than-air machine in Great Britain and in 1909 he set the first ever British distance and endurance record for a flight, by successfully flying the craft for one mile. Later that same year he made some of the earliest passenger flights, by taking first a former workmate and then his common-law-wife Lela up in his plane.
In 1913 Cody and his passenger, the cricketer William Evans, died during a test flight when Cody’s latest and final self-financed aviation project failed mid-air.
Cody was buried with full military honours and his funeral procession is reported to have drawn crowds of 100,000 people.
The Flying Dragon
Italian-born inventor Tito Livio Burattini was a man of hugely varied interests and a truly international outlook.
Born to a noble family in 1617, in the small mining-town of Agordo, which was then part of the Venetian Republic, the young Burattini studied in Venice and Padua before becoming a travelling scholar. In the late 1630s he undertook an expedition to Egypt with the English mathematician John Greaves, in which the two explored the Great Pyramid at Giza and made surveys of obelisks and monuments in Alexandria, Heliopolis and Memphis.
In 1641 he returned to Europe and settled in Germany. But the following year, he accepted an invitation from King Władysław IV to serve the Polish Royal Court in Warsaw.
It was in Warsaw that Burattini constructed his famous Dragon Volant (Flying Dragon).
In 1647 Burattini presented the Polish king with his designs for a sophisticated flying machine, involving four pairs of fixed wings and a large folding parachute. The king was so intrigued by the concept that he granted funds for Burattini to produce a working model of his Dragon.
Later that same year the court were amazed to see Burattini fly small 150cm model of the Dragon, carrying a – presumably very irate cat – as its sole passenger.
The demonstration was successful enough that 500 talers were provided from the Royal Treasury to construct a full-size craft. The machine was completed in May 1648, to be manned by a crew three.
Unfortunately Burattini was rather less successful this time round and the craft failed to launch.
Nonetheless, Burattini held out hope that one day his craft would fly from Warsaw to Constantinople in less than twelve hours.