Thomas Selfridge has the tragic honor of being the first person to die in a powered air crash. A 1903 graduate of West Point, Selfridge fell in love with aviation after studying Alexander Graham Bell’s work with heavy-lifting kites. Indeed, Selfridge’s first flight was on a kite built by Bell’s Aerial Experiment Association. Laying prone in the midst of a 42-foot wing span, Selfridge stayed airborne aboard the Cygnet I for over seven minutes. The eager Army lieutenant would lose his life as Orville Wright’s passenger in a 1908 crash. Orville himself suffered serious injuries and was haunted by his role in Selfridge’s death.
- He made the first dirigible flights for the Army Signal Corps at Fort Myer, Va.
- He was elected Secretary of the Aerial Experiment Association in 1907.
- He assisted Orville Wright in demonstrating the Wright Flyer’s capabilities and helped to break numerous flying records at the dawn of aviation.
Born in San Francisco in 1882, Selfridge received his appointment to the Military Academy at West Point and graduated with the Class of 1903. Early in his military career Selfridge became intensely interested in aeronautics. He read about Dr. Alexander Graham Bell who was building kites with great lifting capacity at his summer home near Baddeck, Nova Scotia. He wrote Dr. Bell asking permission to witness some of the experiments. Bell was so impressed with him that President Theodore Roosevelt assigned him to Baddeck as an official observer. Here, in the summer of 1907, he met F.W. “Casey” Baldwin, J. A. D, McCurdy and Glenn Hammond Curtiss. The team brought together by Dr. Bell discussed many ideas about the future of powered flight. Mrs. Bell suggested that more progress could be made by forming an association and she even offered to finance the group. The Aerial Experiment Association formed in October 1907 and Selfridge was elected Secretary. The Association built a large kite called “Cygnet I”. It had several thousand tetrahedral cells and a wing span of over 42 feet. On December 6th, he lay prone in the center of the kite placed aboard a scow, as it was towed by a tugboat across lake Bras d’Or. When a strong wind arose, the kite left the scow and soared to a height of 168 feet. For seven minutes Selfridge remained aloft, making scientific readings until the wind dropped and the kite settled to the water. This was his first flight.
In early 1908 he received the honor of designing the Association’s first airplane. It was called the Red Wing because of its red silk covered wings. Next, they built the White Wing, incorporating hinged ailerons, in which he made a successful flight becoming the first Army officer to make an airplane flight in America. Their third airplane, the June Bug, won the Scientific American Trophy for a flight of over 1 Kilometer. The Association offered the first airplanes for sale in America for $5,000 each with delivery in sixty days. Their fourth airplane, the Silver Dart, became the first airplane to be flown in Canada.
In August 1908, he was assigned to an official Board responsible for tests of the Army Signal Corps’ first dirigible at Fort Myer, Virginia. Selfridge made numerous flights in this dirigible before it was officially accepted. He was next assigned to a board that conducted the first trials of the Wright airplane. The board’s job was to determine whether the plane could fly 40 miles an hour, carry two persons aloft, and be portable enough to be transported by a mule-drawn wagon. When Orville Wright made the first flight at Fort Myer, the crowd gasped in astonishment. For the next two weeks, the airplane broke record after record and proved its capabilities. On September 17th Selfridge climbed into the passenger seat to fly with Orville. They were in a slow turn during the fourth round when he heard a tapping sound. Then came two big thumps. The airplane shook violently, making a sudden turn to the right. The engine was shut off. The plane nosed straight downward, headed for the ground. In an almost inaudible voice he exclaimed “Oh! Oh!” as he hung desperately to the wing struts. When the plane was about twenty-five feet from the ground it began to level out. A few more feet and it would have landed safely. Instead there was a terrifying sound of splintered wood. For a moment there was silence as a noiseless cloud of dust rose around the wreckage. Then a chorus of human voices gasped, and there was the trampling of running feet as a human wave rushed toward the wreckage. Several spectators raised the crumpled plane and found the unfortunate Selfridge pinned beneath the engine. He had made the supreme sacrifice in conquering the problems of powered flight, the first person to do so. Selfridge was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. Later an Air Force Base at Mount Clemens, Michigan was named in his honor. His sudden death was a great loss to aeronautics. He served with the fledgling Air Corps at a time when its wings were beginning to take definite form. Endowed with the enthusiasm of youth and a keen mind, he entered his chosen field with a deep scientific interest and a special love for the great challenges of life.
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