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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 a crash of a powered aeroplane.
Selfridge was born in San Francisco, California in 1882 and graduated from West Point in 1903. He was 31st in a class of 96; Douglas MacArthur was first. After receiving his commission in the Field Artillery, he was assigned to the Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps at Fort Myer, Virginia. There he was one of three pilots trained to fly the Army Dirigible Number One, purchased in July, 1908 from Thomas Scott Baldwin. He was also the United States government representative to the Aerial Experiment Association, which was chaired by Alexander Graham Bell, and became its first secretary.
Selfridge took his first flight on December 6, 1907 on Alexander Graham Bell's tetrahedral kite, the Cygnet, made of 3,393 winged cells. It took him 168 feet (51 m) in the air above Bras d'Or Lake in Nova Scotia, Canada and flew for seven minutes. This was the first recorded flight carrying a passenger of any heavier-than-air craft in Canada. He also flew a craft built by a Canadian engineer, Frederick W. Baldwin, which flew three feet off the ground for about 100 feet.
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 actually flew 318 feet, 11 inches (97.2 m), before crashing. Red Wing was destroyed in a crash on its second flight on March 17, 1908, and only the engine could be salvaged.
In August 1908, Selfridge, along with Lieutenants Frank P. Lahm and Benjamin Foulois, was instructed in flying a dirigible purchased by the US Army in July. The dirigible was scheduled to fly from Fort Omaha, Nebraska to exhibitions at the Missouri State Fair, in St. Joseph, Missouri, with Foulois and Selfridge as the pilots. However, the Army had also tentatively agreed to purchase an aeroplane 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.
When Orville Wright came to Fort Myer to demonstrate the Wright Flyer for the US Army Signal Corp division, Selfridge arranged to be a passenger while Orville piloted the craft. On September 17, 1908, the Wright Flyer circled Fort Myer 4.5 times at 150 feet (46 m). Halfway through the fifth circuit, the right propeller broke, losing thrust. This set up a vibration, causing the split propeller to hit a guy 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. Orville shut off the engine and managed to glide to about 75 feet (23 m), but the Flyer hit the ground nose first.
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 (15 m) 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 underwent neurosurgery but died that evening without regaining consciousness. He was 26.
Orville suffered severe injuries, including a broken left thigh, several broken ribs and a damaged hip, and was hospitalized for seven weeks. Selfridge wasn't wearing any headgear while Wright was only wearing a cap, as two existing photographs taken before the flight prove. If Selfridge had been wearing a helmet of some sort he most likely would have survived the crash. As a result of Selfridge's death the US Army's first pilots wore large heavy headgear reminiscient of early football helmets.
Thomas Selfridge was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 3, Lot 2158, Grid QR-13/14.