Thomas Selfridge

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Thomas Etholen Selfridge
Thomas selfridge smoking pipe.jpg
Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge (1882–1908)
BornFebruary 8, 1882 (1882-02-08)
San Francisco, California
DiedSeptember 17, 1908(1908-09-17) (aged 26)
Fort Myer, Virginia
Arlington National Cemetery Section 3 Gravesite 2158 [1]
AllegianceFlag of the United States (1896-1908).svg  United States of America
Service/branchFlag of the United States Army.svg  United States Army
Years of service1903–1908
Rank First Lieutenant
Unit Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps
Relations Thomas O. Selfridge, Sr. (grandfather),
Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr. (uncle)

Thomas Etholen Selfridge (February 8, 1882 September 17, 1908) was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and the first person to die in an airplane crash. He was also the first Active Duty member of the U.S. military to die in a crash while on duty. He was killed while seated as a passenger in the Wright Flyer, on a demonstration flight piloted by Orville Wright. [2]

First lieutenant is a commissioned officer military rank in many armed forces and, in some forces, an appointment.

United States Army Land warfare branch of the United States Armed Forces

The United States Army (USA) is the land warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces. It is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States, and is designated as the Army of the United States in the United States Constitution. As the oldest and most senior branch of the U.S. military in order of precedence, the modern U.S. Army has its roots in the Continental Army, which was formed to fight the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783)—before the United States of America was established as a country. After the Revolutionary War, the Congress of the Confederation created the United States Army on 3 June 1784 to replace the disbanded Continental Army. The United States Army considers itself descended from the Continental Army, and dates its institutional inception from the origin of that armed force in 1775.

Wright Model A 1906 aircraft by the Wright brothers

The Wright Model A was an early aircraft produced by the Wright Brothers in the United States beginning in 1906. It was a development of their Flyer III airplane of 1905. The Wrights built about seven Model As in their bicycle shop during the period 1906–1907 in which they did no flying. One of these was shipped to Le Havre in 1907 in order to demonstrate it to the French. The Model A had a 35-horsepower (26 kW) engine and seating for two with a new control arrangement. Otherwise it was identical to the 1905 airplane. The Model A was the first aircraft that they offered for sale, and the first aircraft design to enter serial production anywhere in the world. Apart from the seven machines the Wrights built themselves in 1906–1907, they sold licences for production in Europe with the largest number of Model As actually being produced in Germany by Flugmaschine Wright GmbH, which built about 60 examples.



Selfridge was born on February 8, 1882, in San Francisco, California. [3] He was the grandson of Rear Admiral Thomas Oliver Selfridge Sr. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1903 and received his commission in the Artillery Corps. He was 31st in a class of 96; Douglas MacArthur was first. In 1907, when the Artillery Corps was separated into the Field Artillery and Coast Artillery Corps, Selfridge was assigned to the 5th Field Artillery Regiment and the following year to the 1st Field Artillery Regiment.

United States Military Academy U.S. Armys federal service academy in West Point, New York

The United States Military Academy (USMA), also known as West Point, Army, Army West Point, The Academy, or simply The Point, is a four-year federal service academy in West Point, New York. It was originally established as a fort that sits on strategic high ground overlooking the Hudson River with a scenic view, 50 miles (80 km) north of New York City. It is one of the five U.S. service academies.

Douglas MacArthur U.S. Army general of the army, field marshal of the Army of the Philippines

General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was an American five-star general and Field Marshal of the Philippine Army. He was Chief of Staff of the United States Army during the 1930s and played a prominent role in the Pacific theater during World War II. He received the Medal of Honor for his service in the Philippines Campaign, which made him and his father Arthur MacArthur Jr. the first father and son to be awarded the medal. He was one of only five to rise to the rank of General of the Army in the US Army, and the only one conferred the rank of field marshal in the Philippine Army.

5th Field Artillery Regiment

The 5th Field Artillery Regiment was constituted as part of the Regular Army in January 1907. Individual battalions have lineages which date back further. Currently, it is a parent regiment under the U.S. Army Regimental System, with a single active battalion, the 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery, which is assigned to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas.

Selfridge was stationed at the Presidio during the great San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906. His unit participated in search and rescue as well as cleanup operations. [4] In 1907, he was assigned to the Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps at Fort Myer, Virginia, where he was later instructed in flying a dirigible. He was also the United States government representative to the Aerial Experiment Association, which was chaired by Alexander Graham Bell, and he became its first secretary.

Presidio of San Francisco Neighborhood in San Francisco, California, United States

The Presidio of San Francisco is a park and former U.S. Army military fort on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula in San Francisco, California, and is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

1906 San Francisco earthquake major earthquake that struck San Francisco and the coast of Northern California

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck the coast of Northern California at 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18 with an estimated moment magnitude of 7.9 and a maximum Mercalli intensity of XI (Extreme). High intensity shaking was felt from Eureka on the North Coast to the Salinas Valley, an agricultural region to the south of the San Francisco Bay Area. Devastating fires soon broke out in the city and lasted for several days. As a result, up to 3,000 people died and over 80% of the city of San Francisco was destroyed. The events are remembered as one of the worst and deadliest earthquakes in the history of the United States. The death toll remains the greatest loss of life from a natural disaster in California's history and high in the lists of American disasters.

Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps

The Aeronautical Division, Signal Corps (1907–1914) was the first heavier-than-air military aviation organization in history and the progenitor of the United States Air Force. A component of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the Aeronautical Division procured the first powered military aircraft in 1909, created schools to train its aviators, and initiated a rating system for pilot qualifications. It organized and deployed the first permanent American aviation unit, the 1st Aero Squadron, in 1913. The Aeronautical Division trained 51 officers and 2 enlisted men as pilots, and incurred 13 fatalities in air crashes. During this period, the Aeronautical Division had 29 factory-built aircraft in its inventory, built a 30th from spare parts, and leased a civilian airplane for a short period in 1911.

Selfridge took his first flight on December 6, 1907, on Bell's tetrahedral kite, the Cygnet , made 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 seven minutes. This was the first recorded passenger flight of any heavier-than-air craft in Canada.[ citation needed ] He also flew a craft built by a Canadian engineer, Frederick W. Baldwin, which flew three feet off the ground for a distance of about 100 feet.

AEA Cygnet experimental aircraft

The Cygnet was an extremely unorthodox early Canadian aircraft, with a wall-like "wing" made up of 3,393 tetrahedral cells. It was a powered version of the Cygnet tetrahedral kite designed by Dr Alexander Graham Bell in 1907 and built by the newly founded Aerial Experiment Association.

Bras dOr Lake Lake in Nova Scotia, Canada

Bras d'Or Lake is an inland sea, or large body of partially fresh/salt water in the centre of Cape Breton Island in the province of Nova Scotia, Canada. Bras d'Or Lake is sometimes referred to as the Bras d'Or Lakes or the Bras d'Or Lakes system; however, its official geographic name is Bras d'Or Lake, as it is a singular entity. Canadian author and yachtsman Silver Donald Cameron describes Bras d'Or Lake as "A basin ringed by indigo hills laced with marble. Islands within a sea inside an island." The lake is connected to the North Atlantic by natural channels; the Great Bras d'Or Channel north of Boularderie Island and the Little Bras d'Or Channel to south of Boularderie Island connect the northeastern arm of the lake to the Cabot Strait. The Bras d'Or is also connected to the Atlantic Ocean via the Strait of Canso by means of a lock canal completed in 1869—the St. Peters Canal, at the southern tip of the lake.

Nova Scotia Province of Canada

Nova Scotia is one of Canada's three Maritime Provinces, and one of the four provinces that form Atlantic Canada. Its provincial capital is Halifax. Nova Scotia is the second-smallest of Canada's ten provinces, with an area of 55,284 square kilometres (21,300 sq mi), including Cape Breton and another 3,800 coastal islands. As of 2016, the population was 923,598. Nova Scotia is Canada's second-most-densely populated province, after Prince Edward Island, with 17.4 inhabitants per square kilometre (45/sq mi).

"Red Wing" aeroplane AEA Red Wing (Aerodrome 1).jpg
"Red Wing" aeroplane

Selfridge designed Red Wing , the Aerial Experiment Association's first powered aircraft. On March 12, 1908, the Red Wing, piloted by Frederick W. Baldwin, raced over the frozen surface of Keuka Lake near Hammondsport, New York, on runners and managed to fly 318 feet, 11 inches, before crashing. Red Wing was destroyed in a crash on its second flight on March 17, 1908, and only the engine could be salvaged.

AEA Red Wing experimental aircraft by the Aerial Experiment Association

The Red Wing was an early aircraft designed by Thomas Selfridge and built by the Aerial Experiment Association in 1908. It was named for the bright red color of its silk wings - chosen to achieve the best result with the photographic materials and techniques of the day.

Keuka Lake lake in Steuben County, New York, USA

Keuka Lake is one of the major Finger Lakes in the U.S. state of New York. It is unusual because it is Y-shaped, in contrast to the long and narrow shape of the other Finger Lakes. Because of its shape, it was referred to in the past as Crooked Lake. Keuka means "canoe landing" in the Iroquois language and "lake with an elbow" in the Seneca language.

Hammondsport, New York Village in New York, United States

Hammondsport is a village at the south end of Keuka Lake, one of the Finger Lakes of New York, United States. The population was 731 at the 2000 census.

On May 19, 1908, Selfridge became the first US military officer to pilot a modern aircraft when he flew solo in AEA's newest craft, White Wing , traveling 100 feet on his first attempt and 200 feet on his second. [5] Between May 19 and August 3, he made several flights at Hammondsport, culminating in a flight of one minute and thirty seconds at a height of 75 feet. The next day his final solo flight of fifty seconds covered a distance of 800 yards. Although not fully trained as a pilot, Selfridge was nevertheless the first U.S. military officer to fly any airplane unaccompanied. [6]

The White Wing was an early US aircraft designed by Frederick W. Baldwin and built by the Aerial Experiment Association in 1908. Unusual for aircraft of its day, it featured a wheeled undercarriage. The wings were equipped with ailerons controlled by a harness worn around the pilot's body; leaning in one direction would cause the aircraft to bank to follow.

In August 1908, Selfridge was one of three pilots trained to fly the Army Dirigible Number One, purchased by the US Army from Thomas Scott Baldwin in July 1908; his training partners were Lieutenants Frank P. Lahm and Benjamin Foulois. The dirigible was scheduled to fly from Fort Omaha, Nebraska, to exhibitions at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, Missouri, piloted by Foulois and Selfridge. However, the Army had tentatively agreed to purchase an airplane from the Wright Brothers and had scheduled the acceptance trials in September. Selfridge, with an interest in both heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air ships, obtained an appointment and traveled to Fort Myer, Virginia.


Wreckage of the Wright Flyer that took the life of Tom Selfridge Fort Myer Wright Flyer crash.jpg
Wreckage of the Wright Flyer that took the life of Tom Selfridge

In September 1908, Orville Wright visited Fort Myer to demonstrate the 1908 Wright Military Flyer for the US Army Signal Corps division. On September 17, Selfridge arranged to be his passenger and Wright piloted the craft. On this occasion, the Flyer was carrying more weight than it had ever done before; the combined weight of the two men was approximately 320  lbs. [7] [8] [9]

The Flyer circled Fort Myer 4½ times at a height of 150 feet. Halfway through the fifth circuit, at 5:14 in the afternoon, the right-hand propeller broke, losing thrust. This set up a vibration, causing the split propeller to hit a guide wire bracing the rear vertical rudder. The wire tore out of its fastening and shattered the propeller; the rudder swiveled to the horizontal and sent the Flyer into a nose-dive. Wright shut off the engine and managed to glide to about 75 feet, but the craft hit the ground nose first. [10] Both men were thrown forward against the remaining wires and Selfridge struck one of the wooden uprights of the framework, fracturing the base of his skull. He underwent neurosurgery but died three hours later without regaining consciousness. [2] Wright suffered severe injuries, including a broken left thigh, several broken ribs, and a damaged hip, and was hospitalized for seven weeks.

Orville Wright later described the fatal accident in a letter to his brother, Wilbur Wright:

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.

Two photographs taken of the Flyer just prior to the flight, show that Selfridge was not wearing any headgear, while Wright was only wearing a cap. [11] Selfridge would most likely have survived the crash if he had been wearing a helmet of some kind. Following the crash, and as a direct result of Selfridge's death, first pilots of the US Army were instructed to wear large heavy headgear reminiscent of early football helmets.[ citation needed ]

Thomas Selfridge was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Section 3 Gravesite 2158, adjacent to Fort Myer. [4]


Selfridge Air National Guard Base is named after him. The base is located in Harrison Township, Michigan, near Mt. Clemens, 22 miles NNE of Downtown Detroit, Michigan (from the US Port of Entry at the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel).

Though buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Selfridge is memorialized by a large cenotaph in Section XXXIV of West Point Cemetery.

The damaged propeller of the Wright Flyer wrecked at Fort Myer can be viewed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Dayton, Ohio.

A gate between Arlington National Cemetery and Fort Myer, located approximately halfway between the two chapels on Fort Myer, is named "Selfridge Gate", in his honor.

See also

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  1. "Prominent Military Figures". Arlington National Cemetery. Retrieved 28 August 2018.
  2. 1 2 "FATAL FALL OF WRIGHT AIRSHIP; Lieut. Selfridge Killed and Orville Wright Hurt by Breaking of Propeller. MACHINE A TOTAL WRECK Increased Length of New Blade and Added Weight of a Passenger Probable Causes. CAVALRY RIDE DOWN CROWD Rumor That the Machine Had Been Tampered with Denied by Army Officers -- Not Well Guarded" (PDF). The New York Times . September 18, 1908. Retrieved October 17, 2010. Falling from a height of 75 feet, Orville Wright and Lieut. Thomas E. Selfridge of the Signal Corps were buried in the wreckage of Wright's aeroplane shortly after 5 o'clock this afternoon. The young army officer died at 8:10 o'clock to-night. Wright is badly hurt, although he probably will recover.
  3. "Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge". Mount Clemens Public Library. Archived from the original on March 14, 2007. Thomas E. Selfridge was born in San Francisco on February 2, 1882. Little is known about his early life. He was graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point with the Class of 1903. Selfridge ranked 31st in the class of 96 cadets that year; future general Douglas MacArthur was first.
  4. 1 2 "The First Fatal Plane Crash… At Fort Myer, Virginia, September 17th, 1908". November 22, 2014.
  5. "Thomas Etholen Selfridge". Archived from the original on July 17, 2012. Retrieved December 13, 2014.
  6. "Air Corps News Letter" (PDF). XXI (1). Office of the Chief of the Air Corps, War Dept., Washington. January 1, 1938. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 3, 2015.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. Kingseed, Wyatt (August 19, 2001). "The First Airplane Fatality: February '01 American History Feature". Retrieved May 24, 2018. The spectators stood momentarily stunned. Then they surged across the field to the plane. The post commander sensed that the situation could get out of hand and ordered a cavalry guard forward to stem the tide. "If they don't stand back," he yelled, "ride them down!"
  8. Miss Celliana (March 13, 2013). "Orville Wright and the First Person to Die in an Airplane". Retrieved May 24, 2018.
  9. "Miracle at Kitty Hawk: Unpublished Letters of the Wright Brothers (Part I)". The Atlantic . May 1950. Retrieved May 24, 2018.
  10. "Wilbur Wright Weeps. Aviator's Brother Grieved by Fatal Accident. Deplores Officer's Death. First Thought Is Safety of Passengers, He Says, When News of Orville's Mishap at Fort Myer Reaches Him in France. Countermands Orders for Flights, to Regret of Waiting Crowd" . Washington Post . September 19, 1908. Retrieved June 5, 2018. Le Mans, France, September 18, 1908. Wilbur Wright, brother of Orville Wright, and who has been conducting a series of experiments here for several weeks with a Wright aeroplane, was very much perturbed when he heard this morning the news from Washington that his brother had suffered an accident, in which Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge lost his life.
  11. "Thomas E. Selfridge and Orville Wright (1 picture)". Getty Images . September 17, 1908. Retrieved October 2, 2017.

Further reading