Thomas Etholen Selfridge is not a household name in America (nor anywhere else, I expect), but his name is well-known to aviation history buffs. He is famous almost exclusively for his death: he was the first person to die in the crash of a heavier-than-air aircraft. Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Mount Clemens, Michigan and the town of Selfridge, North Dakota are named in his honor, and monuments in his memory are at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York as well as at Arlington National Cemetary. He is also in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Selfridge belonged to a family with a checkered military history. He was the nephew of Rear Admiral Thomas O. Selfridge Jr., who was a Union Naval officer during the Civil War; three ships were sunk out from under him, one of which was the first ship ever sunk by an enemy ironclad. His grandfather (Thomas Sr.) was also an admiral in the U.S. Navy. Thomas E. Selfridge applied for the U.S. Naval Academy, but was too old when he was accepted, and so attended West Point. There, he graduated 31st in a class of 96 cadets from the West Point class of 1903, doubtless impressing his family. He was a second lieutenant in the artillery when the Wright Brothers had their first success with heavier-than-air flight.
He was stationed at the Presidio in Monterey, California during the 1906 earthquake and fire, and was recognized for his bravery in that disaster.
In 1907 he was promoted to first lieutenant in the artillery, but his passion was for the developing technology of "aeroplanes". He contacted Alexander Graham Bell in Washington, D.C., and requested a transfer to the Signal Corps to work with Bell on flying experiments at Baddeck, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. There he worked with Glenn H. Curtiss and several other aviation pioneers in his capacity as the official observer for the U.S. Government. That year, he became the first person ever to fly in a "Bell Kite", a tetrahedral manned kite named for Alexander G. Bell.
By 1908, he was made secretary of Dr. Bell's Aerial Experiment Association, and supervised the construction of the "June Bug", "Red Wing", and the "White Wing", two more early aircraft. He also flew all three aircraft, becoming the first U.S. Army officer to fly an airplane in America. It must be stressed that by 1908, Selfridge's was a well-known name in aviation, and by no means was he regarded a fool or a tourist when it came to flying.
In August of 1908, he performed acceptance testing of a dirigible for the Army. Since he was there, he volunteered to be on the committee to do acceptance testing for the Wrights' aircraft in September of that year, as well. Before the government would purchase it, he needed to verify that it could be carried in a mule-drawn wagon, and could fly 40 miles per hour carrying two persons. For the tests, one of those persons would have to be one of the Wright Brothers, at the controls. On the third acceptance test, Lt. Selfridge was permitted to be the passenger, because he was leaving town soon, and wanted to seize the opportunity that had presented itself. To fly with the world-famous Wright Brothers was a great honor; he and the brothers were to have dinner with Octave Chanute and General Crozier, the Chief of Ordnance, after the flight, also. Selfridge was on top of the world.
Orville Wright was at the controls on September 17th, and took the plane up to an altitude of about 100 feet as he flew long ovals over the crowd of 2,500 spectators at Fort Myer. The plane was fitted with two extra-long wooden propellers to compensate for Selfridge's weight, the strong winds, and to ensure that the plane would achieve its test speed. During the second turn of the fourth lap, the left propeller snapped, and the blade flew through several of the plane's control wires, severing them. Accounts of the crash state that the plane descended choppily to about 75 feet, then climbed sharply upwards before diving towards the ground. The nose began to lift shortly before impact, and the plane's remains tangled and injured both occupants. Orville had a broken thigh and a concussion, and was lucid when pulled from the wreckage, immediately asking if he was in good enough condition to make his dinner appointment with Chanute and Gen. Crozier. Selfridge was, by all accounts, killed instantly. Reports of his injuries vary, stating that he had a compound fracture at the base of his skull or a fracture above his left eye. Whichever is the truth, all accounts agree that his head trauma was severe and fatal; he was pronounced dead at 8:10 that evening. Orville recovered, and travelled back to Dayton, Ohio to finish recuperating.
Selfridge is remembered as the first air-crash fatality, and all of his obituaries agree that he died doing what he loved. By Orville's account, he faced the impending crash stoically.
"...as the airship passed over us, Lieut. Selfridge took off his cap and waved it at a number of the ladies and men in the party and said something to them which I did not hear. He was smiling and laughing. The group responded by applauding and cheering."
--John B. McCarthy, spectator
Historical Note: under the old, pre-Honor Roll E2 experience system, this node would finally take me to Level 6. I have finally earned my homenode pic!