Thomas Selfridge

From Academic Kids

First Lieutenant Thomas Etholen Selfridge (February 8, 1882September 17, 1908) was the first person to die in a powered aircraft crash.

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Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge

Selfridge graduated from West Point in 1903. He was 31st in a class of 96; Douglas MacArthur was first. After receiving his commission, he was assigned to the Signal Corps Aeronautical Division at Fort Myer, Virginia. There he helped design the Army Dirigible Number One. He was also the United States government representative to the Aerial Experiment Association, which was chaired by Alexander Graham Bell, and became it's first secretary.

Selfridge took his first flight on December 6, 1907 on Alexander Graham Bell's tetrahedral kite, the "Cygnet", a strange structure made up 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 an amazing seven minutes. This was the first recorded flight carrying a passenger of any heavier-than-aircraft in Canada. He also flew a craft built by a Canadian engineer, Frederick W. "Casey" Baldwin, which soared three feet off the ground for about 100 feet.

Selfridge designed Red Wing, the Aerial Experiment Association's first powered aircraft. On a bitterly cold March 12, 1908, the Red Wing, piloted by "Casey" Baldwin, sped over the icy surface of Keuka Lake near Hammondsport, New York on runners, bounded into the air, and actually flew for a distance of 318 feet, 11 inches, before collapsing to the ground, leaving the pilot slightly bruised. This would be the first public demonstration of a powered aircraft flight in the United States. Red Wing was destroyed in a crash on its second flight on March 17, 1908, and only the engine could be salvaged.

When Orville Wright came to Fort Myer to demonstrate the Wright Flyer for the Army, Selfridge arranged to fly along while Orville piloted the craft. The Wright Flyer circled Fort Myer four-and-a-half times at 150 feet. Halfway through the fifth circuit, there was a loud bang and the end of the propeller blade fell off. The Flyer's vibration caused the propeller to hit a guy wire, tearing the wire out of its fastening and disintegrating the propeller, which caused damage to the canvas and wooden machine. To bring the Flyer under control, Wright shut off the engine and managed to glide the Flyer to about 75 feet. But the Flyer nose-dived to the ground.

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 against the remaining wires. Selfridge was thrown against one of the wooden uprights of the framework and his skull was fractured. He died later that evening, while Orville Wright suffered severe injuries and was hospitalized for three months. Selfridge was 26 years old.

Thomas Selfridge was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 3, Lot 2158, Grid QR-13/14. Selfridge Field air base, located outside of Detroit, Michigan, is named for E. Selfridge



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