It had only been five years since Orville and Wilbur Wright made their famous flight at Kitty Hawk. By 1908, the Wright brothers were traveling across the United States and Europe in order to demonstrate their flying machine. Everything went well until that fateful day in September that began with a cheering crowd of 2,000 and ended with pilot Orville Wright severely injured and passenger Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge dead.
A Flight Exhibition
Orville Wright had done this before. He had taken his first official passenger, Lt. Frank P. Lahm, into the air on September 10 at Fort Myer, Virginia. Two days later, Orville took another passenger, Major George O. Squier, up in the Flyer for nine minutes.
These flights were part of an exhibition for the United States Army. The U.S. Army was considering purchasing the Wrights' aircraft for a new military airplane. To get this contract, Orville had to prove that the airplane could successfully carry passengers.
Though the first two trials had been successful, the third was to prove a catastrophe.
Twenty-six year-old Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge volunteered to be a passenger. A member of the Aerial Experiment Association (an organization headed by Alexander Graham Bell and in direct competition with the Wrights), Lt. Selfridge was also on the Army board that was assessing the Wrights' Flyer at Fort Myers, Virginia.
It was just after 5 p.m. on September 17, 1908, when Orville and Lt. Selfridge got into the airplane. Lt. Selfridge was the Wrights' heaviest passenger thus far, weighing 175 pounds. Once the propellers were turned, Lt. Selfridge waved to the crowd. For this demonstration, approximately 2,000 people were present.
The weights were dropped and the airplane was off.
Out of Control
The Flyer was up in the air. Orville was keeping it very simple and had successfully flown three laps over the parade ground at an altitude of approximately 150 feet.
Then Orville heard light tapping. He turned and quickly looked behind him, but he didn't see anything wrong. Just to be safe, Orville thought he should turn off the engine and glide to the ground.
But before Orville could shut off the engine, he heard "two big thumps, which gave the machine a terrible shaking."1
The machine would not respond to the steering and lateral balancing levers, which produced a most peculiar feeling of helplessness.2
Something flew off the airplane. (It was later discovered to be a propeller.) Then the airplane suddenly veered right. Orville couldn't get the machine to respond. He shut off the engine. Yet he kept trying to regain control of the airplane.
. . . I continued to push the levers, when the machine suddenly turned to the left. I reversed the levers to stop the turning and to bring the wings on a level. Quick as a flash, the machine turned down in front and started straight for the ground.3
Throughout the flight, Lt. Selfridge had remained silent. A few times Lt. Selfridge had glanced at Orville to see Orville's reaction to the situation.
The airplane was about 75 feet in the air when it started a nose-dive to the ground. Lt. Selfridge let out a near inaudible "Oh! Oh!"
Heading straight for the ground, Orville was not able to regain control. The Flyer hit the ground hard. The crowd was at first in silent shock. Then everyone ran over to the wreckage.
The crash created a cloud of dust. Orville and Lt. Selfridge were both pinned in the wreckage. They were able to disentangle Orville first. He was bloody, but conscious. It was harder to get Selfridge out. He too was bloody and had an injury to his head. Lt. Selfridge was unconscious.
The two men were taken by stretcher to the nearby post hospital. Doctors operated on Lt. Selfridge, but at 8:10 p.m., Lt. Selfridge died from a fractured skull, without ever regaining consciousness. Orville suffered a broken left leg, several broken ribs, cuts on his head, and many bruises.
Lt. Thomas Selfridge was buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. He was the first man to die in an airplane.
Orville Wright was released from the Army hospital on October 31. Though he would walk and fly again, Orville continued to suffer from fractures in his hip that had gone unnoticed at the time. Orville later determined that the crash was caused by a stress crack in the propeller. The Wrights soon redesigned the Flyer to eliminate the flaws that led to this accident.
1. Orville Wright as quoted in Curtis Prendergast, The First Aviators (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1980) 58.
2. Orville Wright as quoted in Ibid 58.
3. Orville Wright as quoted in Ibid 58.
Howard, Fred. Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
Prendergast, Curtis. The First Aviators. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1980.
Whitehouse, Arch. The Early Birds: The Wonders and Heroics of the First Decades of Flight. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1965.