The First Fatal Plane Crash…
At Fort Myer, Virginia
Selling the Idea of Flight...
Four years after their ground-breaking flights at Kitty
Hawk, the Wright Brothers submitted a bid to the U.S. War Department to design a
plane for $25,000 in January of 1907. This bid was in response to a previous War
Department request issued a month earlier for a "Heavier-than-air Flying
Machine." While Wilbur Wright went off to Paris to promote the Wright Flyer, his
brother Orville Wright stayed in Dayton, Ohio, to design a plane for the Army
Signal Corps, spending over a year on the design and construction.
By August of 1908, the plane was ready, and he headed
to Fort Myer, Virginia, where the air trials were to take place. To get this contract, the brothers had to prove that the
airplane could successfully carry passengers (the Wright Brothers had been
allowing passengers to fly with them since May 14rh, 1908), and meet other mission
requirements. One of the passengers during the trials would be twenty-six year-old U.S.
Army 1st Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge.
Young, Brash, and Brilliant...
A native of San Francisco, California, being born there on
February 8th, 1882, and graduated from West Point in 1903, where he was 31st in
a class of 96 (Douglas MacArthur was first), after he received his commission in
the Field Artillery, and been stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco at the
time of the 1906 earthquake and fire, he was assigned to the Aeronautical
Division, U.S. Signal Corps at Fort Myer, Virginia.
At Fort Myer, he was one of three pilots trained to fly
the Army Dirigible Number One, purchased in July of 1908 from Thomas Scott
Baldwin, who was the first American to descend from a balloon in a parachute.
Selfridge was also the United States government representative to the Aerial
Experiment Association, which was chaired by Alexander Graham Bell, and became
its first secretary.
Selfridge took his first flight on December 6th, 1907, on Alexander Graham
Bell's tetrahedral kite, the Cygnet, made of over 3,000 winged cells. It
took him 168 feet in the air, for seven minutes, above Bras d'Or Lake in Nova
Scotia, Canada. This flight was the first recorded to be carrying a passenger of
any heavier-than-air-craft in Canada. Selfridge also supervised the
construction of two airplanes, the "June Bug" and "Red Wing", at Hammondsport,
New York, piloting the "Red Wing" of March 12th, 1908, and the "June Bug" in
July of 1908.
In August of 1908, he was assigned to an official Board
responsible for tests of the Army Signal Corps' first dirigible at Fort Myer,
Virginia. He made numerous flights in this dirigible before it was officially
Being a member of the Aerial Experiment Association, He
was next assigned to a board conducting the first trials of the Wright airplane
to see if it could fly 40 miles an hour, carry two persons aloft, and be
portable enough to be transported by a mule-drawn wagon. The tests would
start on from August 20, 1908, and last over a month
A Prior Commitment...
flight in the Wright Flyer was slated for September 18th, 1908. But the
Wrights had their concerns about flying with Selfridge, as the Lieutenant was a
close friend of the Wright's competition, Alexander Graham Bell.
"I don't trust him an inch," Orville wrote to
Wilbur. "He plans to meet me often at dinner where he can pump me."
But Selfridge was to leave on September 19th to join Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois in
St. Joseph, Missouri, to stage dirigible exhibition flights at a state fair
there. So Selfridge asked to go up before his scheduled turn. When one of
the two Navy observers, Lt. George Sweet, gave up his place, Wright agreed.
Selfridge sitting on the plane, waiting as Wright
does the preflight check
The Wright Flyer - in the air over Fort Myer
Right after the crash, as the
crowds rush towards to wreck
The wreckage, covered by
tarps, being moved. On the extreme right of the photo, men are
attending to an injured Orville Wright
Unconscious, Selfridge lying
on the ground near the Flyer
Wright and Selfridge being
rushed to the post hospital
Flyer, with a wingspan of 36 feet, 4 inches,
and a length of 28 feet, had flown with Orville Wright
and his first official passenger, Lt. Frank P. Lahm, U.S. Army, on September 10th, at Fort
Myer, Virginia. Two days later, Orville took another passenger, Major George Owen Squier,
who had written the specifications for the first military aircraft, up in the Flyer for nine minutes.
On the 17th, a crowd of around 2,000
people were on hand to witness the flight, some of which were seeing an airplane
take flight for the first time in their lives. It was just after 5 PM when
Wright said to Selfridge "You might as well get in. We'll start in a couple of
minutes." Lt. Selfridge, who was the Wright Flyer's heaviest
passenger to date, weighing 175 pounds, complied. Once the propellers were turned, Lt.
Selfridge waved to the crowd.
At 5:14PM, the weights holding the airplane to the ground (in cause of a gust of wind)
were dropped and the airplane was off, slowly lumbering into the air. Orville was keeping
his control inputs very basic, and had flown three laps over the parade ground
successfully, at an altitude of
about 150 feet, when he heard light tapping.
He turned to look over his shoulders, but did not spot any problems
despite using a new set of propellers for this flight. Ever
cautious, Wright begin to shut down the plane's engine, a
39 horsepower Wright pusher, to glide to the ground.
But before Orville could shut off the engine, he heard "two big thumps, which
gave the machine a terrible shaking.
Something flew off the airplane, and then the airplane suddenly veered to
the right. Wright was unable to get the machine to
respond. He shut off the engine as he continued to try and regain control of the
airplane. "I continued to push the levers, when the machine suddenly turned to
the left. I reversed the levers to stop the turning and to bring the wings
on a level. Quick as a flash, the machine turned down in front and started
straight for the ground," Wright said in the accident report.
Throughout the flight, Lt. Selfridge sat - silent.
The lieutenant had glanced at Orville to see his reaction to the situation.
But when the airplane was about 75 feet in the air, it started a nose-dive to the
ground. Selfridge began to realize what was about to happen, and cried "Oh! Oh!"
The plane, and the two aboard, were
doomed. The controls were useless, and the plane smacked hard into the parade
A cloud of dust rising from the crash
site, near the west gate of Arlington National Cemetery, a awed hush fell over the crowd of speculators, and then - everyone
ran over to the wreckage. Both Wright and Selfridge had survived the impact, but
were both heavily injured, and pinned inside the Flyer.
Seemingly easier to free, as well as
conscious, Wright was the first to be extricated from the wreck.
Orville yelled to rescuers, "Oh, hurry and lift the motor!"
raised the crumpled plane and found the unfortunate Selfridge,
bloodied and unconscious,
pinned beneath the engine. After some time,
however, he too was pulled from the Flyer's remains.
Dr. Watters, a New York physician, was one of the first to
reach the crash site, and rendered first aid to the injured men, who were then taken by stretcher to the nearby post hospital.
operated on Lt. Selfridge, but at 8:10 p.m., Selfridge died from a fractured
skull, having been thrown against one of the wooden uprights of the framework,
and without ever regaining consciousness. Wright was only slightly luckier,
having suffered a broken left leg,
several broken ribs, laceration to his head, and many bruises.
Lt. Thomas Selfridge was buried with military honors at Arlington National
Cemetery (Section 3, Lot 2158, Grid QR-13/14).
Despite his many achievements he is mostly
remembered for one thing - being the first person to die in the crash of an airplane.
Orville Wright was released from the Army
hospital on October 31st, and was using clutches by November 14th. Though he
would walk and fly again, Orville continued to suffer from fractures in his hip
that had gone unnoticed at the time,
Afterwards, Wright brought pieces
of the Flyer's wreckage to two of his associates, Charlie Taylor and Charlie
Furnas. The pair quickly found the cause of the accident — one propeller
had broken due to Excessive vibration, having been
clipped by a bracing wire that held the tail
in place. With 2 feet breaking off the propeller, and wire being torn from its
fastening in the rudder, the
tail collapsed, and sent the Flyer into a deadly dive
Orville explained the
conclusions to the Army, and the Army was quick to assure him they would extend
his contract. The Wrights soon redesigned the Flyer, shortened it
by two feet, and adding a more powerful engine,
to eliminate the flaws that led to this accident.
The aircraft was demonstrated successfully
at Fort Myer on June 28, 1909, and the Signal Corps accepted the Wright Military Flyer on August 2nd, 1909. The
airplane sold for $25,000 plus a bonus of $5,000 because it exceeded 40 miles
On November 3rd, 1909, naval
Lieutenant George Sweet got his airplane ride, when he was taken up as a
passenger in the first Army Wright aircraft flown by Lt. Frank P. Lahm,
at College Park, Maryland. Sweet is credited with being the first Navy officer
to have flown in an airplane.
Over the next few years, the Wrights
brothers filed a number of lawsuits based on patent infringements. But in
1912, Wilbur contracted typhoid fever and died on May 30. In 1915, Orville sold
the patent and the Wright airplane company for $1,000,000. Orville Wright
lived until January 30, 1948, when he died at the age of 76
In July of 1917, after the government
leased an aviation field near Mount Clemens, Michigan, from
Henry B. Joy, the field was named in
honor of Lieutenant Selfridge. It is now Selfridge Air National Guard Base, located
about 30 miles north of Detroit.
The West Gate of Arlington Cemetery, near
the Flyer's crash site, was renamed the "Selfridge Gate". The gate is only
used for funerals held at the Fort Myer Memorial Chapel, with burials at
A wooden fragment from one of the propellers
is on display in "The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age"
exhibition at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.