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The Flight of Thomas Selfridge

Ochen Kaylan

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Thomas E. Selfridge and Orville Wright
(Library of Congress)
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This weekend, aviation fans from all around are heading to Fort Myer, Va., for the Centennial of Military Aviation Celebration. It was there a hundred years ago that the U.S. military started looking into those new-fangled flying machines. This was just about five years after the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, so flight was still pretty new. But the Wrights stepped up to the challenge. It was then and there at the Fort Myer Aeronautical Testing Grounds that a number of firsts happened -- the first military test flights, the first military aviation school, the first long-distance flight. Pulling from newspaper clippings, personal letters, and eye-witness accounts, Weekend America producer Ochen Kaylan brings to us the story of another aviation first from that event 100 years ago when Orville Wright rolled in to Fort Myer with the latest in flight technology.

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So here Orville Wright comes with their new design. Now this was the first two-seater ever, and the Army wanted to be sure their men could fly it, so while Orville was in one seat, an Army officer had to be in the other seat. Today that lucky guy is Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge. Now, Selfridge was no stranger to flight. He piloted a kite-like craft called a sygnet designed by Alexander Graham Bell. Orville was convinced that Selfridge was trying to steal ideas to give to Bell. Orville once wrote, "I don't trust him an inch." But the Army choose Selfridge, and there was nothing Orville could do about it.

So it's just after 5 p.m. Orville pulls the plane from the hangar and sets it up, ready to roll down the track. He snorts to Selfridge, "You might as well get in." But Selfridge doesn't let Orville get him down. He's like a kid on Christmas morning, lost in delight. He straps himself in and waves like a child to the crowd. Orville winces.

After the final check, Orville finally gets in. The plane starts lumbering down the track. Faster and faster. Then, as easy as a sparrow, the plane floats up, and dances on the breeze.

Three laps into the flight, the 39-horsepower engine adds a small tapping to its song. Orville looks over his shoulder, but doesn't see anything. He doesn't seem too fazed by it, but decides to shut the engine down just to be safe. He's coasted in for landings plenty of times, so it shouldn't be a problem. But just as he reaches for the control, two horrendous thumps. The whole plane starts shaking. Orville is mumbling to himself, trying to control the plane. Selfridge doesn't look so thrilled anymore. Something flies off the plane like it's shot from a cannon. The plane suddenly veers to the right. Orville finally gets the engine shut down. The plane now shoots to the left. Orville pulls with all his weight to get the plane level, just as it dives straight for the ground. Selfridge, still silent, still trained on Orville. Orville is trying, but can't do anything. Careening towards the ground, Selfridge finally opens his mouth. With the engine off and the crowd silent, Selfridge whispers. "Oh my. Oh my. Oh my."

The plane smacks hard into the ground, just near the gate to Arlington Cemetery.

The crowd is in shock. First a cry, and then everyone runs to the growing, yellow dust cloud rising from what now is just a blood-stained trash heap of crumpled wood and abandoned cloth.

The two men are pinned under the wreckage, but amazingly they're both alive. The crowd begins prying, twisting, pulling the two men out.

Orville, flat on his back, looks up. He smiles, a sort of quizzical smile, like this was the first time he realized a plane might actually crash. He says, "I'd like…" but a man tells him not to talk. He says, "You'll be better in a minute."

Just then, stretchers arrive, and a mournful parade slowly carry the two to the post hospital.

Wright had a broken leg, a few broken ribs, and cuts to his head. But Selfridge fractured his skull. At 8:10 that evening, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge dies.

One week later, Selfridge is buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery as the first person to ever die in an airplane crash.

Comments

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  • By Joseph Green

    From Townsend, MA, 01/29/2013

    Thomas E. was my great Uncle, so I would enjoy contacting Kristina Conklin, as we are surely cousins!

    By Joseph Green

    From Townsend, MA, 01/29/2013

    Thomas E. was my great Uncle, so I would enjoy contacting Kristina Conklin, as we are surely cousins!

    By Kristina Conklin

    From Philipsburg, PA, 04/08/2009

    I would like to thank everyone for keeping Tom's story alive. When I was a child my grandfather would tell me stories of his Uncle Tom and how he died. I am proud to have family that has given to help our country.

    By Tom O'Donnell

    From VA, 09/09/2008

    As a long-time admirer of Tom Selfridge, I want to thank you for this fine piece. Tom was a true pioneer and should never be forgotten.

    By Ochen Kaylan

    From St. Paul, MN, 09/06/2008

    "If Orville could usually land without engine power, why did the craft crash?"

    Hi Rick,

    Thanks for the question. It turns out the Wrights were using a new propeller design that contained a design flaw. The first tapping sound was a warping of the plane that caused the new propeller to make contact with a support. That tapping eventually caused the propeller to snap in half. As one half flew off (that was the thing that "shot off like a cannon") it sliced right through the tail of the plane making it impossible to steer. The rest, as they say, is history.

    Thanks for listening!

    By Leonard Klein

    From Sherman Oaks, CA, 09/06/2008

    I never forget Lt. Selfridge. In the 1960's I was stationed at Selfridge Air Force Base. His story was legend, but never as detailed as yours today. Thanks the full briefing.

    By Deborah Day

    From Chapel Hill, NC, 09/06/2008

    I was very moved by this story! Thank you so much - there are those forgotten in history and I am so glad you let us all know the story of this man and how he fits into the story of the development of our "flying machines"!

    By Rick Touret

    From La Conner, WA, 09/06/2008

    If Orville could usually land without engine power, why did the craft crash?
    What was the object that "shot" off the aircraft & did it damage the controls, wings, tail/elevator or create some unexpected loss of balance?

    By Rud Abbott

    From Grand Rapids, MI, 09/06/2008

    I heard this story while returning from the day at Grand Haven and lake Michigan. Great history and thanks for reminding us of the dedication of our ancestors.

    By Laurence Drexler

    From Charlotte, NC, 09/06/2008

    I heard this story on the air while I was taking a jog on a beautiful day in Charlotte. This was a very interesting historical account.It really caught my imagination. Thank you for a great story.

    By susan stolarcek

    From SD, 09/06/2008

    A vignette of our history that was unknown to me. An honor to the memory of Lt Selfridge. Thank you.

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