Thomas Etholen Selfridge (February 8, 1882 – September 17, 1908) was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and was the first person to die in an airplane crash. He was a passenger on a demonstration flight piloted by Orville Wright and was the first Active Duty member of the U.S. military to die in a crash while on duty.
Selfridge was born on February 8, 1882, in San Francisco, California. He was the grandson of Rear Admiral Thomas Oliver Selfridge Sr. He graduated from United States Military Academy in 1903 and received his commission in the Artillery Corps. He was 31st in a class of 96; Douglas MacArthur was first. In 1907, when the Artillery Corps was separated into the Field Artillery and Coast Artillery Corps, Selfridge was assigned to the 5th Field Artillery Regiment and the following year to the 1st Field Artillery Regiment.
In 1906, Selfridge, a native San Franciscan, was stationed at the Presidio during the great earthquake in April. His unit participated in search and rescue as well as clean up. In 1907, he was assigned to the Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps at Fort Myer, Virginia. There, he was one of three pilots trained to fly the Army Dirigible Number One, purchased in July 1908 from Thomas Scott Baldwin. He 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 6, 1907, on Bell's tetrahedral kite, the Cygnet, made of 3,393 winged cells. It took him 168 feet in the air above Bras d'Or Lake in Nova Scotia, Canada, and flew for seven minutes. This was the first recorded flight carrying a passenger of any heavier-than-air craft in Canada. He also flew a craft built by a Canadian engineer, Frederick W. Baldwin, that flew three feet off the ground for about 100 feet.
Selfridge designed Red Wing, the Aerial Experiment Association's first powered aircraft. On March 12, 1908, the Red Wing, piloted by Frederick W. Baldwin, raced over the frozen surface of Keuka Lake near Hammondsport, New York, on runners and actually flew 318 feet, 11 inches, before crashing. Red Wing was destroyed in a crash on its second flight on March 17, 1908, and only the engine could be salvaged. On May 19, Selfridge became the first US military officer to pilot a modern aircraft when he took to the air alone in AEA's newest craft, White Wing, traveling 100 feet on his first attempt and 200 feet on his second. Between May 19 and August 3, 1908, he made a number of flights at Hammondsport, culminating in a flight of one minute and thirty seconds at 75 feet. The next day his final solo flight of fifty seconds went 800 yards. Although not fully trained as a pilot, Selfridge was nevertheless the first U.S. military officer to fly any airplane solo.
In August 1908, Selfridge, along with Lieutenants Frank P. Lahm and Benjamin Foulois, was instructed in flying a dirigible purchased by the US Army in July. The dirigible was scheduled to fly from Fort Omaha, Nebraska, to exhibitions at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, Missouri, with Foulois and Selfridge as the pilots. However, the Army had also tentatively agreed to purchase an airplane from the Wright Brothers and had scheduled the acceptance trials in September. Selfridge, with an interest in both heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air ships, obtained an appointment and traveled to Fort Myer, Virginia.
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When Orville Wright came to Fort Myer to demonstrate the Wright Flyer for the US Army Signal Corps division, Selfridge arranged to be a passenger while Orville piloted the craft. On September 17, 1908, the Wright Flyer circled Fort Myer 4½ times at 150 feet. Halfway through the fifth circuit, at 5:14 in the afternoon, the right propeller broke, losing thrust. This set up a vibration, causing the split propeller to hit a guy wire bracing the rear vertical rudder. The wire tore out of its fastening and shattered the propeller; the rudder swiveled to the horizontal and sent the Flyer into a nose-dive. Orville shut off the engine and managed to glide to about 75 feet, but the Flyer hit the ground nose first.
Orville later described the accident that killed Selfridge 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.
When the craft hit the ground, both Selfridge and Wright were thrown forward against the remaining wires. Selfridge also struck one of the wooden uprights of the framework, fracturing the base of his skull. He underwent neurosurgery but died three hours after the crash without regaining consciousness. Orville suffered severe injuries, including a broken left thigh, several broken ribs and a damaged hip, and was hospitalized for seven weeks. Selfridge was not wearing any headgear, while Wright was only wearing a cap, as two existing photographs taken before the flight prove. If Selfridge had been wearing a helmet of some sort, he most likely would have survived the crash. As a result of Selfridge's death, the US Army's first pilots wore large heavy headgear reminiscent of early football helmets.
Selfridge Air National Guard Base, located in Harrison Township, Michigan, near Mt. Clemens, 22 miles NNE of Downtown Detroit, Michigan (from the US Port of Entry at the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel), is named after him.
A gate between Arlington National Cemetery and Fort Myer, located approximately half-way between the two chapels on Fort Myer, is also named Selfridge Gate, in honor of him.
Falling from a height of 75 feet, Orville Wright and Lieut. Thomas E. Selfridge of the Signal Corps were buried in the wreckage of Wright's aeroplane shortly after 5 o'clock this afternoon. The young army officer died at 8:10 o'clock to-night. Wright is badly hurt, although he probably will recover.
Thomas E. Selfridge was born in San Francisco on February 2, 1882. Little is known about his early life. He was graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point with the Class of 1903. Selfridge ranked 31st in the class of 96 cadets that year; future general Douglas MacArthur was first.
Le Mans, France, September 18, 1908. Wilbur Wright, brother of Orville Wright, and who has been conducting a series of experiments here for several weeks with a Wright aeroplane, was very much perturbed when he heard this morning the news from Washington that his brother had suffered an accident, in which Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge lost his life.
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