1st Lieut. Thomas E. Selfridge (US)

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Thomas Etholen Selfridge

Birthplace: San Francisco, San Francisco, California, USA
Death: Died in Arlington, Arlington, Virginia, USA
Cause of death: 1st person to die in a powered plane crash, the plane piloted by Orville Wright
Place of Burial: Arlington, Arlington, Virginia, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of Edward A. Selfridge and Minerva Minnie Selfridge
Brother of Edward A. Selfridge, Jr.; Russell Selfridge; Francis Selfridge; Cathrine Selfridge and John Soley Selfridge

Occupation: Lieut. U.S. Army
Managed by: <private> Green
Last Updated:

About 1st Lieut. Thomas E. Selfridge (US)

Thomas Etholen Selfridge (February 8, 1882 – September 17, 1908) was a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and the first person to die in a crash of a powered airplane. He was a passenger while Orville Wright was piloting the aircraft.[1]


   * 1 Biography
         o 1.1 Death
   * 2 Legacy
   * 3 See also
   * 4 References
   * 5 Further reading
   * 6 External links


Selfridge was born on February 8, 1882 in San Francisco, California.[2] He was the grandson of Rear Admiral Thomas Oliver Selfridge Sr. He graduated from West Point in 1903 and received his commission in the United States Army Field Artillery Corps. He was 31st in a class of 96; Douglas MacArthur was first. 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.[3] 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 Alexander Graham Bell's tetrahedral kite, the Cygnet, made of 3,393 winged cells. It took him 168 feet (51 m) 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 (97.2 m), before crashing. Red Wing was destroyed in a crash on its second flight on March 17, 1908, and only the engine could be salvaged.

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 St. Joseph, 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.

Death [Here is a photo illustration] Crashed Wright Flyer that took the life of Selfridge

(Wikisource has original text related to this article: "Fatal fall of Wright airship")

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 (46 m). Halfway through the fifth circuit, 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 (23 m), but the Flyer hit the ground nose first.[4]

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 (15 m) 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 against the remaining wires. Selfridge was thrown against one of the wooden uprights of the framework, and his skull was fractured. He underwent neurosurgery but died that evening without regaining consciousness.[1] He was 26. 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.

Thomas Selfridge was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 3, Lot 2158, Grid QR-13/14.[5]


Selfridge Air National Guard Base, located in Mt. Clemens, about 30 miles north of Detroit, Michigan, is named after him.

Selfridge is buried in Arlington, but he has a large monument (gravestone) in the cemetery at West Point (USMA).

The damaged propeller itself can be viewed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. [edit] See also Seal of the US Air Force.svg United States Air Force portal

   * List of fatalities from aviation accidents
   * Otto Lilienthal, glider death
   * George E. M. Kelly, first American military pilot to die in an airplane crash


  1. ^ a b "Fatal Fall Of Wright Airship. Lieut. Selfridge Killed and Orville Wright Hurt by Breaking of Propeller. Machine A Total Wreck. Increased Length of New Blade and Added Weight of a Passenger Probable Causes. Rumor That the Machine Had Been Tampered with Denied by Army Officers. Not Well Guarded.". New York Times. September 18, 1908. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10A17FB385A17738DDDA10994D1405B888CF1D3. Retrieved 2010-10-17. "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." 
  2. ^ "Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge". Mount Clemens Public Library. Archived from the original on 2007-03-14. http://web.archive.org/web/20070314023015/http://www.macomb.lib.mi.us/mountclemens/selfridge.htm. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "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." 
  3. ^ Check-Six database,The First Fatal Plane Crash
  4. ^ "Wilbur Wright Weeps. Aviator's Brother Grieved by Fatal Accident. Deplores Officer's Death. First Thought Is Safety of Passengers, He Says, When News of Orville's Mishap at Fort Myer Reaches Him in France. Countermands Orders for Flights, to Regret of Waiting Crowd.". Washington Post. September 19, 1908. http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/washingtonpost_historical/access/255654452.html?dids=255654452:255654452&FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&date=SEP+19%2C+1908&author=&pub=The+Washington+Post&desc=WILBUR+WRIGHT+WEEPS&pqatl=google. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "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 wit 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." 
  5. ^ Check-Six.com - The First Fatality - Selfridge's Crash

Further reading

   * Washington Post; May 13, 1908 "Selfridge Aerodrome Sails Steadily for 319 Feet. At 25 to 30 miles an Hour. First Public Trip of Heavier-than-air Car in America. Professor Alexander Graham Bell's New Machine, Built After Plans by Lieutenant Selfridge, Shown to Be Practicable by Flight Over Keuka Lake. Portion of Tail Gives Way, Bringing the Test to an End. Views of an Expert. Hammondsport, New York, March 12, 1908. Professor Alexander Graham Bell's new aeroplane, the Red Wing, was given its test flight over Lake Keuka today by F. W. Baldwin, the engineer in charge of its construction. The machine was built by the Aerial Experiment Association for Lieut. Thomas Selfridge, U.S.A."
   * Washington Post; May 2, 1909 "Plans Monument to Son. E.A. Selfridge to Erect Shaft to Young Aviator in Arlington. E.A. Selfridge, father of the late Lieut. Thomas Selfridge, of the signal corps, the young officer who lost his life September 19 last when the Wright aeroplane collapsed in midair above the Fort Myer parade ground, has been in the city for several days to arrange the details for the monument to be erected to the memory of his son in Arlington National Cemetery."

External links

   * "Photographs of first powered aircraft fatal crash". http://www.flickr.com/photos/medicalmuseum/sets/72157614637207273/detail/. Retrieved August 6, 2009. 
   * Thomas Etholen Selfridge at Find a Grave
   * "Selfridge Field and the beginnings of air power". http://info.detnews.com/history/story/index.cfm?id=33&category=government. Retrieved May 19, 2005. 
   * "Frederick W. (Casey) Baldwin". http://www.earlyaviators.com/ebaldwin.htm. Retrieved May 19, 2005. 
   * "A Most Noble Experiment". http://www.aerofiles.com/aea.html. Retrieved May 19, 2005. 
   * "Aviation in Canada 1938". http://www.rootsweb.com/~canbrnep/aviincan.htm. Retrieved May 19, 2005. 
   * "History of Selfridge". http://www.selfridge.army.mil/History.htm. Retrieved May 19, 2005. 
   * Ramirez, Charles E. "Remembering Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge". Detroit News (Detroit News). http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080916/METRO03/809160375/1014/rss03. Retrieved 2008-09-16.

Source: Downloaded 2011 from Wikipedia.com.

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1st Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge, United States Army, First Field Artillery (attached to the Signal Corps of War Department orders and assigned to aeronautical duty) was killed on 17 September 1908, after falling 75 feet and being pinned to the ground by the full weight of the engine and fuel tank. He was under official instructions to ride as a passenger in an aeroplane piloted by Orville Wright. The aeroplane was traveling at about 40mph. This incident occurred shortly after 5:00 PM, over the aeronautical testing grounds at Fort Myers, in Arlington, Arlington County, Virginia.

At the time, Fort Myers was commanded by Colonel Hatfield, and Major Squiers was senior Signal Corps officer present at the accident. Orville Wright suffered a fractured left thigh and that several ribs on his right side were fractured, and passed out once while being carried away from the crash sight suffering from severe shock. It was estimated that up to 4,000 Army (comprising members of Battery "D" of the 3rd Field Artillery, and Troop "F" of the 13th Cavalry Regiment) and civilian spectators were out to watch this aerial flight test.

The crash occurred closest to one spectator who was watching half-way from the two main gates of Arlington National Cemetery close to a brick wall- that person was the Superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, Mr. Magoon. The aeroplane struck the ground approximately 304 feet from the lower cemetery gate and 462 feet from the northeast corner of the Army aeroplane shed.

According to both Major Francis A. Winter, Medical Corps, USA, and Captain Bailey, Medical Corps, USA (two of Fort Myer's senior Army surgeons on duty at the time), 1st Lieutenant Selfridge never regained consciousness. He sustained a fracture of the base of the skull, and in addition was internally injured due to the severe weight of both the engine and fuel tank having pressed him to the ground upon impact. He died at 8:10 PM that evening in the ward of Fort Myers Army hospital amongst his fellow Signal Corps officers (Major Squiers, Colonel Hatfield, 1st Lieutenant Frank P. Lahm) who had gathered quietly in the hallway hoping for his quick recovery.

1st Lieutenant Selfridge came from a distinguished civic and military family whose family name stood high in the service of our country. The name Selfridge holds a record unique in naval circles at the time, for earlier there were two Rear Admiral Selfridge officers on active duty while his grandfather was on the retired list! The uncle of Thomas E. Selfridge was the only surviving family member at the time and was then living in London, England.

Source: Posted December 01, 2001 by Stephen Berry on Geneology.com's GenForum.com. Downloaded Feb. 2011 from http://genforum.genealogy.com/selfridge/messages/128.html

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1st Lieut. Thomas E. Selfridge (US)'s Timeline

February 8, 1882
San Francisco, San Francisco, California, USA
September 17, 1908
Age 26
Arlington, Arlington, Virginia, USA
Arlington, Arlington, Virginia, USA