Monday, August 10, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: The First Fatal Plane Crash

“The airplane stays up because it doesn't have the time to fall.” -Orville Wright

Fort Myer, Virginia, lies a few scant miles from Washington, DC. The post is the traditional billet for the US Army’s chief of staff, and historically it is a destination post for military officers who hope to climb the ranks and wear stars on their shoulders.  Thomas Selfridge was such an officer.  A graduate of the West Point class of 1903, he had ranked a respectable 31st out of 96, and had initially posted in artillery before being assigned to the Signal Corps’ aeronautical division. 

            Selfridge was one of the first pilots in the military.  He had piloted a heavier than air craft designed by the inventor of the telephone, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, in 1907.  Selfridge turned his own efforts towards design, the result of which was the “Red Wing,” which in May 1908 flew for about 300 feet at an altitude of 20 feet but was destroyed in a crash landing; the project was funded by Bell with the support of his wealthy spouse (Selfridge was not piloting).  After returning the US following the test of the Red Wing, Selfridge and two other Army pilots turned to the assignment of learning to pilot lighter-than-air craft, training in August 1908 to fly the US Army’s first dirigible out of Omaha (later the home of the Strategic Air Command). However, on learning that the Army had purchased a successful Wright Flyer, Selfridge arranged appointment to Fort Myer to participate in the trials of the heavier-than-air craft. 

            On September 17, the Wright Flyer trials took place and 1st Lt. Selfridge arranged to accompany Orville Wright as a passenger on the trial.  They circled above Fort Myer at the incredible height of 150 feet, when a mechanical failure on their fourth orbit led to a fatal turn of events.  Writing to his brother Wilbur, Orville Wright described the mechanical failure and the crash:

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 meters) 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 crashed, Wright and Selfridge were thrown forward.  Wright struck the tension cables of the flyer, breaking his ribs, pelvis and a leg.  Selfridge’s head struck a wooden strut, resulting in a severe skull fracture.  He died later that day.  For nearly five years flyers had taken experimental flights that often ended in crashes.  Orville Wright’s crash at Fort Myer was the first fatal crash of a heavier-than-air craft in aviation history, and it took as its victim a rising military officer who had independent successes in aircraft design.

            Thomas Selfridge was 26, and the Army would later name a field in his honor – Selfridge Field in Mount Clemens, Michigan.  The foundation was laid for Selfridge’s celebrity to grow, if not for his death in the open-air frame of a Wright Flyer.  Popular publications covered the flight of his airplane design in 1907 – the “Selfridge Aerodome.” His name was rising to rank with his contemporaries such as the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss, who was backed by Bell as part of the Aerial Experiment Association.  It was between two of Tom Selfridge’s contemporaries (Wright and Curtiss) that the battle was waged for military aviation contracts, ultimately won by Curtiss on the basis of design with his “Jenny” that was the backbone of American military aviation for the next decade.          

            History remembers Thomas Selfridge because he was the first person to die in a plane crash.  His untimely death illuminates the seemingly risky nature of flight and also the ease with which some human beings assume that risk.  It also reminds us of a heady environment of invention and innovation that existed at the dawn of the modern era, when electronic innovations – telephone, movies, and the airplane – broke down the barriers of time and space and created instant communications and, eventually, nearly instant travel.  Thomas Selfridge navigated the circles of this heady period of innovation, working with entrepreneurs in aviation such as Wright and also Bell, who had a tremendous hand in inventing modern communication by virtue of his telephone.  More information on the first crash of a Wright Flyer can be found in can be found in Noah Adams' excellent 2004 book Flyers: In Search ofWilbur & Orville Wright.