Sept. 17, 1908: Selfridge flies with Wright
Thomas Selfridge was born on Feb. 8, 1882, in San Francisco. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1903. That was the same class as Douglas MacArthur. Selfridge graduated in the top third of his class.
After graduation, his unit helped with search and recovery efforts after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. A year later, he joined the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps at Fort Myers, Va., located across the river from Washington, D.C. He was one of three Army officers to learn how to fly U.S. Army Dirigible No. 1.
He became the government representative and first secretary to Alexander Graham Bell’s Aerial Experiment Association in 1907, and on Dec. 6, 1907, Selfridge made the first heavier than air flight in the nation of Canada on a giant tetrahedral kite named Cygnet, designed by Bell. Selfridge designed the association’s first powered aircraft. It was called Red Wing due to the color of the material on the wings.
On May 19, 1908, he was the first military officer to fly solo in a modern aircraft, the association’s White Wing. Another member of the association was future famous aircraft designer Glenn Curtis.
Orville Wright was at Fort Myer to put the Wright Flyer through acceptance trials with the Army, and Selfridge wanted to fly in it. The weather cleared enough for Orville to take the aircraft up with Selfridge in the passenger’s seat Sept. 17. Wright wore a cap, Selfridge wore no head gear. The engine and propeller
rode behind the two airmen.
The pair made four successful circuits of Fort Myer. On the fifth circuit, Orville put the aircraft into a shallow turn and heard tapping and then two thumps. Apparently, the propeller made contact with one of the guy wires. The aircraft began to shake as the propeller came apart, so Wright turned off the engine. The aircraft began to dive almost perpendicular to the ground. In the resulting crash, Wright broke his left thigh, several ribs, and damaged his right hip. He was hospitalized for several weeks. Selfridge was not so lucky. With a fractured skull, he did not last the night. After the crash, all fliers began wearing helmets. The nation buried Selfridge at Arlington, just a few hundred feet from the accident site.