Friday, December 21, 2007

1908: first death in a airplane crash

By 1908, just five years since Orville and Wilbur Wright made their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers were traveling across the US and Europe to demonstrate their flying machine.

Everything went well until September 17, a day that began with a cheering crowd of 2,000 and ended with pilot Orville Wright severely injured and passenger Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge dead.

Orville Wright 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 US Army. The Army was considering purchasing the Wrights' aircraft for military use. To get the contract, Orville had to prove that the airplane could successfully carry passengers.

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), Selfridge was also on the Army board that was assessing the Wrights' Flyer.

Selfridge was the Wrights' heaviest passenger thus far, weighing 175 pounds. Once the propellers were turned, Selfridge waved to the crowd, weights were dropped and the airplane was off.

Orville was keeping it very simple and had successfully flown three laps over the parade ground at an altitude of about 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 he could shut off the engine, he heard "two big thumps, which gave the machine a terrible shaking."

The machine would not respond to the steering and lateral balancing levers. 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, and kept trying to regain control of the airplane. The airplane was about 75 feet in the air when it started a nose-dive to the ground.
Orville was not able to regain control. The Flyer hit the ground hard.

Orville and 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, and was unconscious.

The two men were taken by stretcher to the nearby post hospital. Doctors operated on Selfridge, but he died from a fractured skull, without ever regaining consciousness. Orville suffered a broken leg, several broken ribs, cuts on his head, and many bruises.

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, he 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. (info from

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