One of the most promising names in the new field of aviation was Thomas E. Selfridge. The fearless young man seemed to have a natural affinity for the amazing machines that could lift a man into the skies. His name is forever associated with flying, but unfortunately, it is for the worst reason. At the young age of 26, he became the first person to die in a plane crash.
Born on February 8, 1882, in San Francisco, California, Thomas Etholen Selfridge seemed destined for greatness. His father was Rear Admiral Thomas Oliver Selfridge Jr. His grandfather was Rear Admiral, Thomas Oliver Selfridge Sr. He continued the family’s military tradition by enlisting at the United States Military Academy. He graduated in 1903, 31st out of a class of 96. Also in that class, graduating at the number 1 spot, was Douglas MacArthur.
After leaving West Point, Selfridge was assigned to field artillery regiments. He was stationed at the Presidio when the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 devastated the city. His unit assisted in search, rescue, and cleanup operations.
It was in the area of aviation, however, that drew his primary attention. It was just a few months after he received his commission that Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first flight at Kitty Hawk. As soon as Selfridge heard about it, he felt that his destiny was entwined with flying.
In 1907, Selfridge was assigned to the Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps at Fort Myer, Virginia. He received instruction in piloting dirigibles. He was also assigned to be the U.S. government’s representative to the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), where he became its first secretary, serving under chairman Alexander Graham Bell.
On December 6, 1907, Selfridge made history by becoming the first passenger of a heavier-than-air craft in Canada. He sat in Bell’s tetrahedral kite, Cygnet. The peculiar construct consisted of 3,393 winged cells and was towed into the air behind a motorboat. Selfridge flew to a height of 168 feet (51 m) and flew for seven minutes. The Cygnet was difficult to control, however, and it was destroyed upon contact with the water at landing. Fortunately, Selfridge was unharmed.
Later, Selfridge flew an aircraft designed by Canadian engineer Frederick W. Baldwin. Although he was airborne, the vehicle only managed to rise three feet off the ground and maintain flight for 100 feet.
Using his knowledge and experience, Selfridge designed Red Wing, the AEA’s first powered aircraft. This aircraft took advantage of the low-friction surface of a frozen lake to pick up speed. On March 12, 1908, the Red Wing, piloted by Frederick W. Baldwin, took off from the icy surface of Keuka Lake near Hammondsport, New York. It flew 318 feet, 11 inches, before crashing. A second flight five days later also ended in a crash. only the engine could be salvaged.
Selfridge became the first U.S. military officer to pilot an airplane on May 19, 1908. He flew White Wing, another creation of the AEA. He flew 100 feet on his first attempt and 200 feet on his second. Over the next three months, he made multiple flights in White Wing, including one lasting one minute and thirty seconds at a height of 75 feet.
The U.S. Army was diligently working to find the right aerial vehicles for us. Because of that, in August 1908, Selfridge found himself pulled in two directions. The Army purchased a dirigible and needed someone to fly it from Fort Omaha, Nebraska to exhibitions at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. The Army had also agreed to purchase an airplane from the Wright Brothers, and they needed an experienced airman to participate in the acceptance trials. Selfridge, keenly interested in both prospects, opted to try out the Wright Brothers’ newest creation and traveled to Fort Myer, Virginia to begin his assignment.
The airplane to be tested was the Wright Military Flyer. Designed for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, it was officially known as the Model A. It was the first aircraft offered for sale by the Wright Brothers and the first aircraft design to enter serial production anywhere in the world.
The first military trial flight took place on September 17, 1908. Orville Wright took the pilot role, and Selfridge climbed aboard as the passenger. Although Wright had flown the plane before, it was without a passenger. Wright and Selfridge’s combined weight was approximately 320 pounds (145 kg). This would test not only Wright’s piloting skills but also the engineering of the aircraft.
The plane took off without difficulty and climbed to a height of 150 feet. The men circled Fort Myer 4½ times, waving to the breathless spectators below. Without warning, at 5:14 in the afternoon, the right-hand propeller broke. The broken propeller cut through a guy-wire near the rear vertical rudder. The wire tore out of its fastening and shattered the propeller. Wright lost control of the rudder and the aircraft went into a nose-dive. Wright managed to cut the power to the engine and glide for about 75 feet, but the plane struck the ground nose-first.
Wright and Selfridge were both thrown forward against the wreckage. Wright suffered severe injuries, including a broken left thigh and several broken ribs. He was hospitalized for seven weeks. Selfridge’s skull was fractured upon impact and was killed almost instantly.
Orville Wright later described the fatal accident in a letter to his brother, Wilbur:
On the fourth round, everything seemingly working much better and smoother than any former flight, I started on a larger circuit with less abrupt turns. It was on the very first slow turn that the trouble began. … A hurried glance behind revealed nothing wrong, but I decided to shut off the power and descend as soon as the machine could be faced in a direction where a landing could be made. This decision was hardly reached, in fact, I suppose it was not over two or three seconds from the time the first taps were heard, until two big thumps, which gave the machine a terrible shaking, showed that something had broken. … The machine suddenly turned to the right and I immediately shut off the power. Quick as a flash, the machine turned down in front and started straight for the ground. Our course for 50 feet was within a very few degrees of the perpendicular. Lt. Selfridge up to this time had not uttered a word, though he took a hasty glance behind when the propeller broke and turned once or twice to look into my face, evidently to see what I thought of the situation. But when the machine turned head first for the ground, he exclaimed ‘Oh! Oh!’ in an almost inaudible voice.
In becoming the first person to die in a plane crash, Selfridge also became the first active-duty member of the military to die in that manner. In his honor, the Air National Guard base near Mt. Clemens, Michigan was named Selfridge Air National Guard Base.
Thomas Selfridge was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Section 3 Gravesite 2158.