The Commerce Journal

September 17, 2013

William Cody had a distinguished military career

The Commerce Journal

COMMERCE — William Cody, a longtime Greenville resident who died recently, had a most extraordinary life.

As a young man, Cody enlisted in the Navy just as World War I was coming to an end. His first assignment after basic training was with the Naval Air Fleet, a new branch of the Navy, where he learned about airplane maintenance and flying. (He had logged over 7,000 hours in the air before he retired from the Navy in 1949.)

Perhaps his most publicized experience happened early in his career with the Navy. In 1925, he was a member of the crew on the first birth of a baby on an airplane in flight, an event that received wide publicity in both the U.S. and European newspapers. The five-man crew, which included a flight surgeon, had gone to Cape Hatteras in a Navy airplane (with an open cockpit and enclosed passenger compartment) to pick up a pregnant woman and fly her to the hospital in Norfolk for the delivery of her baby.

Cody told the rest of the story: “Inside the fuselage of the plane we had built a fold-down bed. We stretched her (the pregnant woman) out on that bed and put straps across her legs and body, so there was no way for her to fall off the bed. The doctor brought with him a jug of water and surgical instruments — needles, thread, scissors that he might need in his doctor’s bag. Then I saw that the doctor was busy, I didn’t want to look so I moved away, and all at once there was a little boy. Inky, the radio operator, sent out a message to the base: ‘Request proper transportation. Mother and son doing fine.’ The mother named the baby boy after the five members of the crew.”

After a brief tour of duty on the U.S. Lexington aircraft carrier, more adventures awaited Cody on the Akron and Macon — two Navy dirigibles.

These airships each held several small Curtis F9C-2 Sparrowhawk biplanes that launched directly from the dirigible.

The planes stored inside the airships dropped outside with a retractable trapeze mechanism. Once outside, the pilot started the engine and tripped the hook that held the airplane.

Remarkably, the pilot could reattach the plane to the trapeze which acted as a crane to bring the fighter back into the dirigible. Cody worked on these biplanes and had some experience flying them.

The Akron crashed and sank off New Jersey in the 1930s, with the loss of 76 men, and the Macon was destroyed in a storm off the California coast in 1935.

This ended the Navy’s experiment with lighter-than-air craft. Fortunately, Cody was not on either one when they went down

In the 1930s, while serving as a flight engineer on an aircraft carrier, Cody invented the shoulder harness. Although navy planes had seat belts, even with the seat belts, pilots tended to bang their heads against the instrument panels of the cockpit when the planes slammed down on the deck of the carrier, sometimes knocking themselves unconscious.

Cody jerrybuilt some safety belts to create a shoulder harness. It worked and the Navy adopted it as standard equipment on all its planes

Cody was aboard the U.S. Enterprise on that fateful day that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Cody recalled that the Enterprise was close enough to launch planes to defend the air bases and ships, but it was too late to do much good in defending the Navy yard and airfields.

The tradition continues in the Cody family; his son is a Navy pilot.

This article is a reprint from the Greenville Herald-Banner, Nov. 27, 1995, written by archivist Emeritus Jim Conrad.