Tag Archives: Orville Wright

20 September 1904

Wilbur Wright, 1867–1912. (Library of Congress)

20 September 1904: In an effort to improve their airplane, the Wright Brothers moved their test flights from the windy Kill Devil Hills of North Carolina to Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, Ohio. Without the winds, however, they needed to achieve greater speed for the airplane to take off, so they devised a catapult which used a 1,200 pound (544 kilogram) weight dropped from a 20 foot (6.1 meter) wooden derrick to pull the Wright Flyer II down a wooden track.

The Wright Flyer II was very similar to the original Flyer. Some parts of the airframe were strengthened, which slightly increased the new airplane’s weight.

Wilbur Wright was at the controls of the Flyer II on 20 September 1904, when it made the first-ever complete circular turn by an airplane. This was witnessed by Ames I. Root, who wrote about it in his magazine, Gleanings in Bee Culture:

“When it turned that circle, and came near the starting-point, I was right in front of it, and I said then and I believe still, it was. . . the grandest sight of my life. Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing right toward you – a locomotive without any wheels. . . but with white wings instead. . . Well, now, imagine that locomotive with wings that spread 20 feet each way, coming right toward you with the tremendous flap of its propellers, and you have something like what I saw.”

The 30th flight of Flyer II at Huffman Prairie, August 1904. (Wright State University)

The Wright Brothers flew the Flyer II 105 times that summer. Next would come the Flyer III.

Wilbur Wright and the Flyer II on Flight 85 at Huffman Prairie. (Wright State University)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

17 September 1908

Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge (Robert B. Williams)

17 September 1908: Orville Wright brought his Wright Flyer to Fort Myer, Virginia to demonstrate it to the U.S. Army Signal Corps.  A crowd of approximately 2,500 spectators had gathered to watch the flight.

Lieutenant Thomas Etholen Selfridge, Signal Corps, United States Army, wanted to ride along with Wright and asked to go first. Lieutenant George Sweet, U.S. Navy was scheduled for the first flight, but he and Wright agreed to let Lieutenant Selfridge go. The two men aboard the Wright Flyer made four circuits of the field approximately 150 feet above the ground. The starboard propeller broke and struck the wires supporting the rudder. As the rudder rotated sideways, it caused the airplane to pitch nose down.

Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge and Orville Wright aboard the Wright Flyer. (U.S. Air Force)

Orville Wright later described the accident:

“On the fourth round, everything seemingly working much better and smoother than any former flight, I started on a larger circuit with less abrupt turns. It was on the very first slow turn that the trouble began. . . A hurried glance behind revealed nothing wrong, but I decided to shut off the power and descend as soon as the machine could be faced in a direction where a landing could be made. This decision was hardly reached, in fact I suppose it was not over two or three seconds from the time the first taps were heard, until two big thumps, which gave the machine a terrible shaking, showed that something had broken. . . The machine suddenly turned to the right and I immediately shut off the power. Quick as a flash, the machine turned down in front and started straight for the ground. Our course for 50 feet was within a very few degrees of the perpendicular. Lt. Selfridge up to this time had not uttered a word, though he took a hasty glance behind when the propeller broke and turned once or twice to look into my face, evidently to see what I thought of the situation. But when the machine turned head first for the ground, he exclaimed ‘Oh! Oh!’ in an almost inaudible voice.”

The wreck of the Wright Flyer, Fort Myer, Virginia, 17 September 1908. (Library of Congress)

The Wright Flyer struck the ground and both men were seriously injured. Thomas Selfridge suffered a fractured skull. He underwent neurosurgery but died without regaining consciousness. Orville Wright had a broken leg, several broken ribs and an injured hip. He spent seven weeks in the Army hospital.

This was the first fatal accident involving an airplane. Lieutenant Thomas Etholen Selfridge was the first person to die in an airplane accident.

Doctors attend to the unconscious Lieutenant Selfridge following the crash of the Wright Flyer at Fort Myer, Virginia, 17 September 1908. He died later that day. (Library of Congress)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather