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Excerpt – The Airplane Joins the Club

 

Based on the work of Lilienthal and others, it was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to attach an engine to a winged glider and fly it off the ground. The result would be the world’s first airplane.

The first controlled and sustained manned flight of a powered, heavier-than- air machine occurred on December 17, 1903. On this day, Orville Wright made a twelve-second hop from the windswept sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It was not overly impressive, but it was a first. Before day’s end, he and his brother, Wilbur, would make three additional and progressively longer flights in their Flyer, which they designed and built after years of painstaking experimentation.

Flights of No Return-cover

Flights of No Return: Aviation History’s Most Infamous One-Way Tickets to Immortality; By Steven A. Ruffin; Hardcover, 256 Pages; 43 color & 46 b/w photos; Quarto/Zenith Press

Still, to many people, these first flights did not seem significant. Balloonists over the past 120 years had already accomplished much greater feats in the realm of human flight. Nevertheless, what the two bicycle makers had managed to do at Kitty Hawk was something special; though they did not invent flight itself, they did invent a different kind of flight. The powered airplane would prove to be the way of the future. It would fly faster and higher and carry bigger payloads than any other type of flying machine; however, such exceptional performance would come at a cost.

September 17, 1908, was a day of tragedy and a day of firsts. On that afternoon, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge had the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first person ever to die in an airplane accident—with none other than the world’s first pilot at the controls.

The events of September 17, 1908, graphically illustrate this point. Orville Wright was at Fort Myer, Virginia, demonstrating his and Wilbur’s newest flying machine, the Wright Model A, to the US Army. It had been nearly five years since their first flight, and they had yet to sell the US government on the concept of the airplane. However, Wilbur had begun demonstrating their flying machine in Europe at the famous automobile racetrack outside of Le Mans, France, and after only one flight had instantly converted the Europeans’ widespread skepticism to wild enthusiasm. Now Orville had to make the case in his own country.

Wright crash

The wreckage of the Wright Model A. Library of Congress photo

On September 3, flying from the parade field at Fort Myer, Orville began putting his Model A through its paces. If successful, he would earn a $25,000 US Army contract for one of their airplanes. Enthusiastic crowds and skeptical US Army evaluators watched intently. They were not disappointed. Over the next two weeks, Orville broke—and broke yet again—several world records. On one flight, he managed to stay airborne for an incredible seventy-five minutes.

The army had several requirements for its first airplane. First, it had to be capable of carrying a passenger. On September 9, Orville took up Lt. Frank P. Lahm for a short hop, and three days later he did the same for Major George O. Squier. At shortly after 5:00 on the afternoon of September 17, it was Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge’s turn.

The twenty-six-year-old Selfridge was a 1903 West Point graduate and already a rising star in the US Army. He was also anything but a neophyte when it came to aviation. After being assigned to the army’s newly formed Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps, he had learned to fly dirigibles, making him one of only three with this qualification in the US Army. In addition, the army had assigned him to work with a civilian aeronautical research group known as the Aerial Experiment Association, or AEA. Alexander Graham Bell, best known as the inventor of the first practical telephone, was the driving force behind this nonprofit scientific organization dedicated to building a “practical aeroplane” capable of carrying passengers. Over the most recent few months, Selfridge had completed several flights in aircraft that he and fellow AEA members had designed and built—making him the first member of the US military ever to solo an airplane. In view of Selfridge’s unique expertise in the realm of aeronautics, it is not surprising that he was among the assigned army observers at the Wright airplane trials.

The suspicious and highly secretive Wright brothers viewed Bell and his AEA as a competitor—and, therefore, the enemy. Consequently, they had no great love for Lieutenant Selfridge either. Orville believed the young officer’s real intent during the Fort Myer flight demonstration was to steal their secrets and use them for his and the AEA’s own purposes. This led Orville to write to Wilbur during the Fort Myer trials, “I will be glad to have Selfridge out of the way. I don’t trust him an inch.” He would soon have reason to regret making that statement.

Orville’s takeoff that afternoon was uneventful, as Selfridge, seated next to him, waved to friends in the crowd of two thousand spectators. The Wright Model A climbed to about 150 feet and began flying circuits over the field. After a few minutes, however, something went terribly wrong; it was later determined that a propeller tip broke. It was the catalyst for a catastrophic series of events that led to the complete uncontrollability of the airplane, which suddenly pitched downward and crashed headlong to the earth. Selfridge, according to Orville, only had time to utter a nearly inaudible “uh-oh.”

The stunned group of onlookers made a wild dash across the parade field toward the crash, while mounted cavalry did their best to hold back the mob. A cloud of dust hovered over the wreckage as rescuers extricated the two men from it. Orville, face bloodied, was conscious but badly hurt with a fractured femur, broken ribs, and other injuries. Selfridge was even less fortunate. Those in attendance carried him from the field, unconscious and suffering from a fractured skull. He died three hours later. The crash occurred mere feet outside the western perimeter of Arlington National Cemetery, where Selfridge’s body would soon lie.

September 17, 1908, was a day of tragedy and a day of firsts. On that afternoon, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge had the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first person ever to die in an airplane accident—with none other than the world’s first pilot at the controls.

Excerpted from Flights of No Return: Aviation History’s Most Infamous One-Way Tickets to Immortality, by Steven A. Ruffin.