Almost 5 years after the historic birth of controlled flight at Kitty Hawk, an updated version of the Wright Flyer was involved in the first fatal aircraft mishap in powered flight. Many early pioneers in aviation, like Otto Lilienthal, had already sacrificed their lives in lighter-than-air and glider ventures, but powered flight would be the future and there was much to prove in terms of safety for the masses. In late 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps published a solicitation with detailed specifications for aircraft acquisition by the U.S. military. Over forty bids were placed and the Wright Brothers’ flying machine was one of three bids accepted by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The contract specified that demonstration of the aeroplanes and their physical delivery must be before 28 Aug, 1908 in Fort Myer, Virginia.
Wilbur spent most of 1908 in Europe demonstrating the capabilities of the Wright Flyer to foreign governments. This left Orville at home to deliver the contracted flying machines to the U.S. military in late August of that year. He arrived in Fort Myer on 20 August. After many demonstrations and flights throughout the first half of September, Orville continually broke records for longest recorded solo and accompanied flights. On the flight of 17 September, however, Orville was pilot-in-command of the first fatal aircraft mishap.
Twenty-six year old 1st Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge was an early U.S. Army aviator and had recently been appointed to a specialized board trusted with the mission to assess the Wrights’ Flyer among other aircraft for use by the American military. Lt Selfridge was to be Orville’s passenger on 17 September. Sadly, he became the first casualty of heavier-than-air aviation.
1st Lieutenant Frank P. Lahm, later retiring as a Brigadier General and known as the “nation’s first military aviator”, authored the first aircraft mishap report. He was an eye witness to the tragic crash and described his account in this report stating,
“Mr. Wright and Lieut. Selfridge took their places in the machine, and it started at 5:14, circling the field to the left as usual. It had been in the air four minutes and 18 seconds, had circled the field 4 1/2 times and had just crossed the aeroplane shed at the lower end of
the field when I heard a report then saw a section of the propeller blade flutter to the ground. I judge the machine at the time was at a height of about 150 feet. It appeared to glide down for perhaps 75 feet advancing in the meantime about 200 feet. At this point it seemed to me to stop, turn so as to head up the field toward the hospital, rock like a ship in rough water, then drop straight to the ground the remaining 75 feet.”
Orville survived the crash but suffered several lacerations, 2-3 broken ribs and a broken hip and knee. On 31 October, Lt Lahm interviewed Orville in the hospital and reported Orville’s version of the mishap:
“He said he heard a clicking behind him about the time he crossed the aeroplane shed; He decided to land at once but as there was scarcely time to do it before reaching the cemetery wall, he decided to complete the turn and head toward the upper end of field. He thought he was about 100 feet high at the time the propeller broke and that he descended more or less gradually about 40 feet, then the machine dropped vertically. He shut off the engine almost as soon as the clicking began, then corrected a tendency to turn which the machine seemed to have. All this time the machine was coming down pretty rapidly. He pulled the lever governing the front rudder as hard as possible but the machine still tipped down in front, so he pushed the lever forward and pulled it back again hard, thinking it might have caught or stuck…He stated that at a height of about 60 feet the front end of the machine turned nearly straight down and then it fell. About 15 feet from the ground it again seemed to respond to the front rudder and the front end came up some- what, so that it struck the ground at an angle of about 45 degrees.”
Tragically, Lt Selfridge never regained consciousness and passed away the evening of the mishap at 8:10 pm from a suspected head injury. He was noted to have a fractured skull over one of his eyes.
Upon a thorough investigation by Lt Lahm and his team, the following determination was made as to the cause of the mishap:
“I am of the opinion that due to excessive vibration in the machine, this guy wire and the right hand propeller came in contact. The clicking which Mr. Wright referred to being due to the propeller blade striking the wire lightly several times, then the vibrations increasing, it struck it hard enough to pull it out of its socket and at the same time to break the propeller. The rear rudder then fell to the side and the air striking this from beneath, as the machine started to glide down, gave an upward tendency to the rear of the machine, which increased until the equilibrium was entirely lost. Then the aeroplane pitched forward and fell straight down, the left wings striking before the right. It landed on the front end of the skids, and they as well as the front rudder were crushed. Both Mr. Wright and Lieut. Selfridge were on their seats when the machine struck the ground, held there by wire braces which cross immediately in front of the two seats.”
Upon his return from Europe, Wilbur had the opportunity to examine the remains of the mishap aircraft. His conclusion of the cause of the mishap differed slightly from the findings of Lt Lahm’s report. Wilbur believed that the aircraft lost control due to the right propeller cracking along its entire length, provoking an imbalance and loss of thrust from one side of the aircraft. He hypothesized that this imbalance resulted in the left propeller moving forward, which then came into contact with the rudder-support wire. In a letter Wilbur Wright penned to eyewitness and French aviation pioneer, Octave Chanute, he wrote, “The blade which borke off was not the one which originated the trouble. The splitting of the propeller was the occasion of the accident; the uncontrollability of the tail was the cause.” It should also be noted that prior to the mishap flight, Orville had modified the aircraft by adding longer propellers in hopes of increasing the airspeed.
The mishap report for the first fatality of modern aviation was published 19 February, 1909. By June of 1909, the Wright Brothers had made further modifications to their flyer and returned to Fort Myer, Virginia. Lt Lahm even served as a passenger for one of the flight demonstrations. Upon successfully meeting all of the contract requirements, the U.S. Army Signal Corps officially accepted the Wright Flyer on 2 August 1909 paying $25,000.
Lt Thomas Selfridge was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery and his official obituary can still be found on the Arlington Cemetery’s webpage. Lt Selfridge remains further memorialized through the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan.