The wreck of the 1908 Wright Flyer that seriously injured Orville Wright and killed Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, the first person to die as the result of an airplane accident; September 17th, 1908
During flight trials to win a contract from the U.S. Army Signal Corps, pilot Orville Wright and passenger Lt. Thomas Selfridge crash in a Wright Flyer at Fort Myer, Virginia. Wright is injured, and Selfridge becomes the first passenger to die in an airplane accident.
After Wilbur and Orville Wright made their historic first-ever airplane flight Dec. 17, 1903, they spent the next few years largely in seclusion developing their new invention. By the end of 1905 their interest in aviation had changed from curiosity and the challenge of flying, to the business of how to turn aviation into an industry: They were looking for a business model.
Unfortunately their first attempts to attract the United States government to the idea of using airplanes were turned down. The military just didn’t see how the airplane could be used in any practical way.
For two-and-a-half years the Wright brothers did not fly. They continued to work on their airplane, but put more and more time into building the business. Eventually they were able to attract interest from both the French and British governments, but by 1907 they still did not have any firm contracts.
But the Wright brothers were awarded two contracts in 1908: one from the U.S. Army and the other from a French business. The Army contract was for a bid to fly a two-man “heavier-than-air” flying machine that would have to complete a series of trials over a measured course. In addition to the $25,000 (about $600,000 in today’s buying power) bid, the brothers would receive a $2,500 bonus for every mile per hour of speed faster than 40 mph. No supersonic stealth fighters just yet.
Because they had not flown since October 1905, the brothers returned to Kitty Hawk to test their new controls to be used on the Wright Flyer in the Army flight trials. Despite some difficulty getting used to the new controls, both brothers managed to get some practice flying in during the stay in North Carolina.
Wilbur was in France during the summer of 1908 demonstrating the new Wright Flyer to Europeans (video). Orville remained in the United States and on Sept. 3 made his first flight at Fort Myer, where the Army trials were set to begin.
The flight tests set out by the Army required the airplane to carry two people for a set duration, distance and speed. There was a committee of five officers to evaluate the Wright Flyer’s performance, including the 26-year-old Selfridge.
Selfridge was a member of the Aerial Experiment Association and had designed the group’s first powered airplane. The Red Wing first flew on March 12, 1908, but crashed and was destroyed on its second flight a few days later.
During the first two weeks of September Orville made 15 flights at Fort Myer. He set three world records Sept. 9, including a 62-minute flight and the first public passenger flight. By Sept. 12 Orville had flown more than 74 minutes in a single flight and carried Maj. George Squier for more than 9 minutes in one flight.
On Sept. 17 Orville was flying Selfridge on another of the test flights. Three or four minutes into the flight, a blade on one of the two wooden propellers split and caused the engine to shake violently. Orville shut down the engine but was unable to control the airplane.
The propeller had hit a bracing wire and pulled a rear rudder from the vertical position to a horizontal position. This caused the airplane to pitch nose-down, and it could not be countered by the pilot.
The Wright Flyer hit the ground hard, and both men were injured. Orville suffered a fractured leg and several broken ribs. Selfridge suffered a fractured skull and died in the hospital a few hours later.
Despite the crash, and the first passenger death in an airplane, the Army was significantly impressed with the Wright Flyer and allowed the brothers to complete the trials the following year. They were awarded the contract. Along with success in France, the Wright brothers were well on their way to establishing what would become one of the most successful aviation companies during the early days of flying.
Because of the crash, the first Army pilots were required to wear helmets similar to early football helmets in order to minimize the chance of a head injury like the one that killed Selfridge.
Though the early days of aviation continued to be full of danger, airplane travel today is statistically one of the safest modes of transportation based on passenger miles traveled. Between 1995 and 2000 there were about 3 deaths per 10 billion passenger miles flown.