Tag Archives: Thomas Etholen Selfridge

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, U.S. Army Signal Corps, 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 guy 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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

12 August 1908

Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1 at Fort Myer, Virginia, 1908 (U.S. Army)

12 August 1908: Test flights begin for Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1 at Fort Myers, Virginia, with Thomas Scott Baldwin as pilot and Glenn Hammond Curtiss as flight engineer.

Brigadier General James Allen, Chief Signal Officer, 1906–1913. (U.S. Army)

On 1 August 1907, Brigadier General James Allen, Chief Signal Officer, United States Army, issued a directive establishing the Aeronautical Division within the Signal Corps. Captain Charles Chandler was the officer in charge. Specifications were published in Signal Corps Bulletin No. 5, soliciting bids for both lighter- and heavier-than air vehicles. There were 41 responses. Plans were submitted and a board of officers selected plans for those that seemed most practical.

The lighter-than-air craft was required to be a self-propelled dirigible (a “directable” balloon) able carry two persons and to be able to travel at 20 miles per hour (32.2 kilometers per hour). Thomas Scott Baldwin’s proposal was selected. (The Wright brothers’ Military Flyer was selected as the heavier-than-air winner on 2 August 1909, and designated Signal Corps Airplane No. 1.)

Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1 (SC-1) emerges from its shed at Fort Myer, Virginia, 3 August 1908. (Carl Harry Claudy/NASM-Claudy-205)

On 3 August 1908, Baldwin No. 8 was presented to the Army for trials. Although the the Baldwin No. 8 reached an average speed of just 19.61 miles per hour (31.56 kilometers per hour). It demonstrated the required endurance of two hours, averaging 14 miles per hour (22.5 kilometers per hour). Although the airship’s speed was short of the requirement, on 5 August, the Army purchased it from Baldwin for $5,737.59. The airship was designated Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1.

Contemporary sources give the airship’s dimensions as being 96 feet (29.26 meters) long with a maximum diameter of 19 feet, 6 inches (5.94 meters). The envelope was made of two layers of silk fabric separated by a layer of vulcanized rubber, and supported by 30 wooden frames. Buoyancy was provided by hydrogen gas. The envelope’s volume was approximately 20,000 cubic feet (566 cubic meters).

An open girder beam gondola (or “car”) built of spruce was suspended beneath the balloon. The gondola was 66 feet (20.12 meters) long with a  2½ feet × 2½ feet (0.76 × 0.76 meters) cross section. A water-cooled Curtiss-built inline four-cylinder gasoline engine was mounted at the front end of the gondola. The engine produced 20 horsepower and drove the tractor propeller through a steel drive shaft at 450 r.p.m. The two-bladed spruce propeller had a diameter of 10 feet, 8 inches (3.25 meters) and pitch of 11 feet (3.35 meters).

A two-plane “box-kite” canard elevator unit behind the engine provided control for pitch. The pilot was located behind the control surfaces. Another crew member was at the rear of the gondola, followed by a fixed cruciform stabilizer unit.

The dirigible had a lifting capacity of  1,350 pounds (612.4 kilograms). The payload was 500 pounds (226.8 kilograms).

The U.S. Army’s first aviators, Lieutenants Benjamin D. Fulois, Thomas Etholen Selfridge and Frank P. Lahm were taught to fly the airship. Lahm and Fulois made the first flight of an all-Army crew on 26 August.

Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1 was assigned to the Signal Corps Post at Fort Omaha, Nebraska, where the Army had a balloon factory. It was operated there until 1912. The airships envelope needed to be replaced, and unwilling to spend money for that, the airship was sold.

Second Lieutenants Lahm and Fulois flying Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1 (SC-1) at Fort Myer, Virginia, 28 August 1908. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather