As we look back and pay tribute to the hero’s of the United States Space Program, we should also remember the brave pioneers of American Aviation history.
Without these brave aviation pioneers, we could never have developed the air travel we so take for granted, let alone have reached for the stars and walked on the Moon.
Thomas Etholen Selfridge was one such brave aviation pioneer.
Selfridge was born on February 8, 1882 in San Francisco, California.
Selfridge graduated from West Point in 1903 along with Douglas MacArthur and received his commission in Field Artillery.
In 1907, Selfridge was assigned to the Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps at Fort Myer, Virginia.
There, Selfridge became one of three pilots trained to fly the Army Dirigible Number One, purchased in July, 1908 from Thomas Scott Baldwin.
Selfridge 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 in the air above Bras d’Or Lake in Nova Scotia, Canada, and flew for a total of seven minutes. This was the first recorded flight carrying a passenger of any heavier-than-air craft in Canada.
Selfridge then designed Red Wing, the Aerial Experiment Association’s first powered aircraft. It was named for the bright red color of its silk wings – chosen to achieve the best result with the photography techniques of the day.
On March 12, 1908, Selfridge’s Red Wing, piloted by Canadian Frederick W. Baldwin, raced over the frozen surface of Keuka Lake near Hammondsport, New York, on runners and actually flew 318 feet, 11 inches at a height of around 20 feet before crashing 20 seconds after takeoff. A portion of the tail gave way, bringing the test to an end. This was the first public demonstration of a powered aircraft flight in the United States as well as the first flight by a Canadian pilot.
The Red Wing was destroyed in a crash on its second flight March 17, 1908, and only the engine could be salvaged.
On May 19, 1908, Selfridge became the first US military officer to pilot a modern aircraft when he took to the air alone in AEA’s newest craft, White Wing, at Hammondsport, NY. Selfridge and White Wing traveled 100 feet on his first attempt and 200 feet on his second. Unusual for aircraft of its day, White Wing 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.
Between May 19 and August 3, 1908, Selfridge made a number of flights at Hammondsport, culminating in a flight of one minute and thirty seconds, 75 feet off the ground.
The next day Selfridge’s final solo flight lasted fifty seconds and covered 800 yards.
Although not licensed or fully trained as a pilot, Thomas Selfridge was the first U.S. military officer to fly any airplane solo.
Then in August of 1908, Selfridge, along with Lieutenants Frank P. Lahm and Benjamin Foulois, were 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 Sedalia, Missouri, with Foulois and Selfridge as the pilots. However, the Army had also 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 aircraft, traveled to Fort Myer, Virginia.
Death of an Aviation Pioneer
On September 17, 1908, the Wright Flyer circled Fort Myer 4½ times at an altitude of 150 feet.
Halfway through the fifth circuit, the aircraft’s 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 horizontal and sent the Wright Flyer into a sudden nose-dive.
Orville Wright shut off the engine and managed to glide to about 75 feet, but the Flyer crashed into the ground nose first.
Thomas Selfridge died from his injuries later that night.
Orville Wright 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 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 Wright Flyer 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.
Selfridge underwent neurosurgery but died that evening without regaining consciousness.
Thomas Selfridge was 26 years old.
Orville Wright suffered severe injuries, including a broken left thigh, several broken ribs, a damaged hip, and was hospitalized for seven weeks.
Selfridge was not wearing any headgear, while Wright was only wearing a cap, as the photo below, taken before the flight proves.
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 reminiscent of early football helmets.
Thomas Selfridge was buried not far from the site of the accident, in Section 3, Lot 2158, Grid QR-13/14 of Arlington National Cemetery; the cemetery is adjacent to Fort Myer, Virginia.
Legacy of an Aviation Hero
Selfridge Air National Guard Base, located in Mt. Clemens, 22 miles north of Downtown Detroit, Michigan, is named after him.
Though buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Selfridge is memorialized by a large cenotaph in Section XXXIV of West Point Cemetery.
The damaged propeller can be viewed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Dayton, Ohio.
Now WE know em