Selfridge had many aviation firsts, including deadly one with Wright

Published 8:54 am Saturday, January 18, 2020

Have you ever heard of Thomas Selfridge? He was famous for being first in several aviation feats.

The last one, I’m sure he would have liked to avoid. He was the first military man killed in an aviation accident.

Often, aviators killed in aviation accidents are memorialized by naming an Air Force Base for them. There is a National Guard Air Field named Selfridge, which is located on the Michigan-Canada border, 22 miles northeast of Detroit.

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The incident happened at Fort Myers military base near Washington, D.C.

Orville Wright was demonstrating the 1908 Military Wright Flyer to the army officers. He was carrying Selfridge as a passenger. The two of them together weighed about 320 pounds, which the flyer was able to achieve lift off with no problem.

They were making circuits of the field to impress the Army in hopes they could sell them on equipping the Army with airplanes. Things were going smoothly on the first three circuits, but on the fourth, Wright recounts hearing a loud bang and the plane swerving to the right and at that point, it headed almost straight to the ground.

Wright was able to partially correct the flight and cut the engine. The plane was driven by two pusher propellers using belts or chains from the single engine.

One of the wooden propellers had come apart and caused the plane to crash.

Neither Wright or Selfridge were wearing any type of head gear and Selfridge hit the back of his head, which resulted in an injury that killed him.

Orville lived through the disaster, but had a broken left thigh bone, several broken ribs and a damaged hip. He recovered after seven weeks in the hospital. The Army did not buy into the idea of flying airplanes until sometime later.

Selfridge’s accomplishments include being the first flight of a person in a heavier-than-air craft on Dec. 6, 1907 in Canada.

The aircraft was a kite designed and built by Alexander Graham Bell. It was built of red silk and had 3,393 tetrahedral cells and was pulled to 168 feet in the air across the Bras d’Or Lake in Nova Scotia. Selfridge was in the air for seven minutes before diving from the craft shortly before it crashed. The craft was torn to bits as it was pulled through the water.

Selfridge also flew in a craft built by Fred Baldwin at the altitude of three feet for a distance of 100 feet.

Selfridge also designed a plane called the Red Wing, which was piloted by Fred Baldwin. It flew two missions, flying off the frozen Keuka Lake in Hammondsport, New York. The first flight was for 318 feet, 11 inches. It crashed and was destroyed on its second flight, but the engine was salvaged.

Selfridge became the first U.S. Army officer to fly a plane solo.

In August 1908, he flew a plane called the White Wing for a distance of 100 feet on his first attempt and 200 on the second. He later made several flights climbing to an altitude of 75 feet and traveling 800 yards.

More next week about Bell and his contributions to aviation.

Don Lee, a pilot flying out of Lawrence County Airport since 1970, has been in charge of equipment and grounds maintenance for the last several years. He can be reached at