Look, someone had to be the first person to die in a plane crash, right? It was kind of inevitable. It’s not fair, but eventually, something had to go wrong, and somebody had to take the unpleasant title of first airplane fatality. That somebody is Thomas Selfridge, and he died in 1908.

Before his fatal flight, Selfridge was an Army lieutenant. He had graduated from West Point in 1903, and he had an interest in aviation. With the Aerial Experiment Association, a group headed by Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Selfridge designed the Red Wing, a single-seat biplane:

Wiki Commons

With his expertise (you know, by the standards of the time) in aviation, Selfridge was assigned to Fort Myer, Virginia, in August 1908. The Army was interested in purchasing planes from the fathers of aviation, the Wright Brothers, and they needed to test the aircraft to see if they could fly with passengers.

In September 1908, Wilbur and Orville Wright arrived at Fort Myer to demonstrate the potential of their Wright Flyer. Orville Wright flew two demonstration flights with different Army passengers, and both flights were successful. Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge would be the third flight’s passenger.

With a crowd of 2,000 watching on September 17, Orville Wright took off with Selfridge as his passenger. Wright took the plane up about 150 feet in the air and flew a few laps above the parade ground. 

National Museum of Health and Medicine 

This was when the aircraft experienced some sort of mechanical issue. Wright attempted to turn off the engine and glide back to the ground, but he could not gain control. After losing some altitude, the plane began to nose-dive. It crashed into the earth, much to the horror of everyone in attendance.

Both men were taken to the hospital. Orville Wright had a broken leg, broken ribs, and other injuries. He would remain in the hospital for seven weeks. Thomas Selfridge, though, never regained consciousness after the crash. He suffered a skull fracture, and he died in the hospital, becoming the first person to die in a plane crash.

While a loss of life is never a good thing, Selfridge’s death was important to the further development of aircraft. The Wright Brothers found that a stress fracture in their propeller led to the crash, and because of this, they changed their designs accordingly to prevent future tragedies. In a morbid way, it’s also kind of fascinating just how long it took for an aircraft fatality. The Wright Brothers’ first flight came in 1903, five years before the crash that killed Thomas Selfridge. Considering how new and dangerous the technology was, going five years without a fatality is honestly impressive.

But alas, luck had to run out eventually. Unfortunately for Thomas Selfridge, luck ran out when he was in the air. So thank you, Lieutenant Selfridge. You may not have gone down in history on your own terms, but thanks to you and others who came after you who suffered similar fates, aviation is much safer.

Top Image: National Museum of Health and Medicine 

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