By 1908, the Wright Brothers’ invention had already captured the world’s attention and their efforts continued to prove its worth to the U.S. military. That fall, Orville visited Ft. Myer, an Army training center next to Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington D.C. – The Editors
On Thursday, September 17, the day was clear and cool, wind conditions were ideal. The crowd by the time Orville was ready to take off numbered more than 2,600. Expectations were higher than ever.
A young army officer had been assigned, at his own request, to go with Orville as a passenger, as two other officers had already done and to which Orville had had no objections. This time, however, the young man was someone Orville did not like or trust.
Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge was a twenty-six-year-old West Point graduate from San Francisco with two eminent military figures in his family background with the same name, a grandfather and great-uncle, both rear admirals. The great-uncle Thomas Selfridge had been the naval officer assigned in 1870 to survey the isthmus of Central America to determine the place to cut a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
In little time Lieutenant Selfridge had become one of the army’s most knowledgeable and enthusiastic aviation specialists. He was tall, handsome, and personable and had been made a member of the Signal Corps Aeronautical Board. In addition, he was a member of what was known as the Aerial Experiment Association, or AEA, founded and headed by Alexander Graham Bell, in the interest of progress in the design of flying machines, and that in particular troubled Orville. The young man had a good education and a clear mind, Orville had told Wilbur in a letter, but he was almost certainly a spy for Bell and others of the AEA. “I don’t trust him an inch.”
“Selfridge is endeavoring to do us all the damage he can behind my back, but he makes a pretense of great friendliness,” Orville told his father. The thought of someone like that seated beside him in the air was not easy to accept.
Selfridge also weighed 175 pounds, more than anyone Orville had yet taken up. Still, as a member of the appraisal board, Selfridge was clearly entitled to a flight, and so Orville had agreed.
Looking extremely happy, Selfridge removed his coat and campaign hat, handed them to a friend, and took his place next to Orville, who was attired in his customary dark suit, starched collar, black tie, and Scottish plaid cap.
Charlie Taylor and Charlie Furnas turned the propellers to get them going and at 5:14, the plane headed down the track and lifted more slowly than usual, it seemed to those watching. For 30 to 50 feet it was barely above the grass before it began to “creep” into the air.
The plane was at about 75 feet by the time it reached the lower end of the field, went neatly into its first turn, and came sweeping back at about 100 feet.
“It was noticed that Lieutenant Selfridge was apparently making an effort to talk with Mr. Wright,” reported the Washington Post. “His lips were seen to move, and his face was turned to the aviator, whose eyes were looking straight ahead, and whose body was taut and unbending.”
The plane circled the field three times at about 40 miles per hour. On the fourth turn, heading for Arlington Cemetery, Orville slowed down somewhat and all seemed to be working well.
Then, suddenly, just as the plane was passing over the “aerial garage,” a sizable fragment of something was seen to fly off into the air.
“That’s a piece of the propeller,” shouted one of the army officers.
Orville would later describe hearing an unexpected sound, “a light tapping” behind him, in the rear of the machine. A quick backward glance revealed nothing, but he slowed the engine and started toward a landing.
Then, at an altitude of about 125 feet came two loud thumps and “a terrible shaking.” Orville shut off the engine, hoping to glide to a landing. He pulled as hard as he could on the steering and lateral balance levers, but to no effect. “Quick as a flash, the machine turned down in front and started straight for the ground.”
Lieutenant Selfridge, who had remained quiet until now, was heard only to say in a hushed voice, “Oh! Oh!”
Those below watched in horror as the plane twisted this way and that, then plunged straight down, “like a bird shot dead in full flight,” in Orville’s words.
It hit the ground with terrific force, throwing up a swirling cloud of dust. A half dozen army men and reporters, along with Charlie Taylor, rushed out to help, led by three cavalrymen on horseback.
Orville and the lieutenant lay pinned beneath bloodstained wreckage, faces down. Orville was conscious but moaning in pain. Selfridge lay unconscious, a great gash across his forehead, his face covered with blood.
The scene around the wreckage became one of wild confusion. Officers were shouting orders, automobiles honking. Hundreds of people from the crowd who dashed forward had to be held back by the cavalrymen, one of whom was heard to shout, “If they won’t stand back, ride them down.”
Several army surgeons and a New York doctor in the crowd did what they could for the two men until the stretchers arrived and they were carried off to the base hospital at the far end of the field.
A reporter wrote of having seen Charlie Taylor bend down and loosen Orville’s tie and shirt collar, then, stepping back to lean against a corner of the smashed plane, sob like a child.
Among the crowd that gathered outside the hospital as night came on were Charles Flint and Octave Chanute.
Not until well after dark did word come from within the hospital. Orville was in critical condition, with a fractured leg and hip, and four broken ribs, but was expected to live. Lieutenant Selfridge, however, had died at 8:10 of a fractured skull without ever having regained consciousness . His was the first fatality in the history of powered flight. Speaking for the Army’s Signal Corps, Major George Squier praised Lieutenant Selfridge as a splendid officer who had had a brilliant career ahead of him.
But no one who had witnessed the flights of the previous days could possibly doubt that the problem of aerial navigation was solved. “If Mr. Wright should never again enter an aeroplane,” Squier said, “his work last week at Fort Myer will have secured him a lasting place in history as the man who showed the world that mechanical flight was an assured success.”
That Orville’s passenger that day could well have been Theodore Roosevelt was not mentioned.
From the book THE WRIGHT BROTHERS by David McCullough. Copyright 2015 by David McCullough. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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