The Tragic Tale of Thomas Selfridge

Thomas Selfridge (left) with Alexander Graham Bell, who recruited the military aviator for his Aerial Experiment Association that was competing with the Wright Brothers to be the first in flight (Photo: Air National Guard).

Most pioneer aviators are known for their famous flights, but one of them is best remembered for a fatal flight. Thomas Selfridge became the first person to die in a motorized aircraft accident 109 years ago this September. He was 26 years old.

The tragedy occurred at a key point in aviation history, as the U.S. Army considered a contract to buy airplanes from the Wright brothers. Orville Wright was at the controls of the Wright Flyer that day, nearly five years after he and his brother, Wilbur, made history with flights at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Selfridge, an Army lieutenant with an aviation background, was his passenger — a concession that Orville Wright made reluctantly to try to win the contract.

The two were in the air above Fort Myer, Va., for just a few minutes when a propeller malfunction triggered a chain of events that sent the aircraft plummeting to the ground. Wright survived the accident with severe injuries, but Selfridge never recovered from a fractured skull.

A storied history of Selfridge success
The Selfridge surname was well established in military circles before Thomas Etholen Selfridge was born in 1882. His grandfather and uncle, who shared the name Thomas O., had distinguished Navy careers. Both rose to the rank of rear admiral, and the uncle led an expedition related to the Panama Canal.

Selfridge (Photo: Air National Guard)

Thomas E. Selfridge’s brother, Edward, also was part of an important event in U.S. history. He was part of an infantry regiment that supported future President Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders at San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. “They were a pretty prominent family,” said Dan Heaton, who wrote a book about Thomas E. Selfridge while serving at the Air National Guard base in Michigan that bears the family name.

Like his grandfather and uncle, Thomas E. Selfridge excelled in the military, and he did it at a young age. He was chosen as an alternate to the U.S. Naval Academy while he was still underage, and a year later, he won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He graduated in 1903, the year of the Wright brothers’ first motorized flights.

A native of San Francisco, Selfridge headed back home for his first assignment. He was at the Presidio during the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated the City by the Bay in 1906, a tragedy that prompted a declaration of martial law. As a young lieutenant, he did such a remarkable job during search-and-rescue and cleanup operations that the Army gave him the choice of his next assignment. He opted to teach at West Point for a year and think about it.

While Selfridge was at the academy, Heaton said he wrote a letter to ask the Wright brothers if he could help in their workshop. But they didn’t want someone from the federal government watching them work on an innovative machine the government might want to buy.

Rebuffed by the Wright Brothers, Selfridge instead went to work for Alexander Graham Bell, who turned his attention to aviation and other interests after inventing the telephone. At Bell’s request, President Roosevelt assigned Selfridge to the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Signal Corps in 1907. The corps assigned him to the Bell-funded Aerial Experiment Association for a year of research into an aircraft meant to compete with the Wright brothers’ work. Selfridge eventually piloted — and crashed into the water — an unpowered, tetrahedral kite called Cygnet.

As part of his work with the Aerial Experiment Association, Selfridge designed the Red Wing, which is pictured here on Lake Keuka , N.Y., in 1908 (Photo: wright-brothers.org)

As part of his work for the association, Selfridge also designed a powered aircraft called Red Wing, and a few months after it crashed on its second flight, he piloted two other aircraft called White Wing and June Bug, making him the first U.S. military officer to fly a modern aircraft. He made several flights through the spring and summer of 1908.

‘I don’t trust him an inch’
That August, the Signal Corps recalled Selfridge so he could learn to fly its first powered aircraft, a dirigible based at Fort Myer. The Army relocated the dirigible to Fort Omaha in Nebraska and planned to exhibit it at the Missouri State Fair. But first it had another assignment for Selfridge, who by then had flown a kite and a dirigible, and designed an aircraft. He was tasked with observing the tests of the Wright Flyer.

“He was by far the most experienced airman in the history of the military — in the history of the world perhaps to that point,” Heaton said. “He was obviously the man to make this determination on whether the airplane is worthy of government purchase.”

Orville Wright didn’t see it quite that way. He voiced his displeasure in a letter to Wilbur, who was demonstrating their aircraft to the French government. Noting Selfridge’s pending departure for Missouri, Orville wrote:

I will be glad to have Selfridge out of the way. I don’t trust him an inch. He is intensely interested in the subject and plans to meet me often at dinners, etc., where he can pump me. He has a good education and a clear mind. I understand that he does a good deal of knocking behind my back.
Orville Wright in flight at Fort Myer (Photo: FAA)

In separate letters to his father and sister, Orville accused Selfridge of making “a pretense of great friendliness” while “doing what he can behind our backs to injure us.” Earlier that year, the Wrights had helped Selfridge in his work for Bell’s group by sharing their patent and other information with him. But Orville’s impressions of Selfridge clearly had changed in the interim.

Despite that behind-the-scenes drama, Orville managed to wow the crowds at Fort Myer with the Wright Flyer. Historian David McCullough noted in his book “The Wright Brothers” that Orville set seven world aviation records before the infamous flight with Selfridge.

Rumors swirled that the president, who in 1905 plunged underwater in a submarine, might want to take flight. Although Orville didn’t think the idea was wise, he said he couldn’t refuse if asked. He was equally unenthused about Selfridge flying with him but felt just as compelled to go along when the Army picked Selfridge instead of Lt. Benjamin Foulois.

A fateful flight
Selfridge ended up on the flight that took his life in part because of his scheduled departure to Missouri on Sept. 19, and high winds prevented flights Sept. 16–17. Another passenger reportedly was supposed to be on board Sept. 18, but with the winds down and the plane ready to fly at about 5 p.m., Orville gave the spot to Selfridge.

According to McCullough’s account of the flight and crash, observers said the aircraft lifted more slowly than earlier flights in Fort Myer. Orville steered it safely around the field three times at about 40 miles per hour, but he decided to land after something behind him started tapping in the turn toward a fourth lap.

By then it was too late. Orville heard two loud thumps, and the flyer began shaking violently. He turned off the engine to try to glide to the ground from 125 feet, but as Orville recalled later, “Quick as a flash, the machine turned down in front and started straight for the ground.”

Clockwise, left to right: An Italian weekly newspaper’s inaccurate 1908 dramatization of the Wright Flyer; officials respond to the accident; and Selfridge receives medical care on the scene. (Photos: La Domenica Del Corriere, Library of Congress)

Army officials, journalists and Charles Taylor, who built the engine for the Wright brothers’ first successful flight, rushed to the scene of the crash. Both pilot and passenger were pinned under the mangled aircraft. Orville broke a leg and four ribs; Selfridge fractured his skull and never regained consciousness.

The deadly crash awakened everyone to the risks of flying higher and faster, but it didn’t deter aviation pioneers like the Wrights from continuing their innovative journeys. Both Orville and Wilbur Wright returned to Fort Myer less than a year later, with Orville flying a new plane well enough to satisfy all of the government’s conditions for buying it.

In death, Selfridge also secured his place in aviation history. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, near the Fort Myer crash site, and the cemetery’s Selfridge Gate is named for him. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1965.

This story originally appeared on the FAA’s internal website. It has been reprinted with permission.