1st Lieut. Thomas E. Selfridge (USA)

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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 (USA)

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]

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 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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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

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