Thomas Selfridge was a passenger in one of the Wright brothers’ early planes when it crashed in 1908; he was the first person to die in a plane crash.
In the early 19th century, the US military was very interested in the possibility of an air force. The US army had experimented with balloons as far back as Civil War, but it wasn’t until 1907 that the signal corps established a specific aeronautical division. This small group was tasked with purchasing an airplane.
The aeronautical division, following the rules of military acquisition, had a set of conditions for this purchase: the plane had to carry two people, and it had to be able to carry 160kg at 64 kilometres per hour, and it needed a range of 201km. Meet those criteria, and you could pick up a cool US$25,000 (more than $700,000 in today’s money). The Wright brothers thought their Model A could fit the bill.
Of course, you had to test it first. The plane was delivered to Fort Myer in Virginia and in September of 1908 Orville Wright set out to prove it could do what the brothers had promised.
Thomas Selfridge was the aeronautical division’s only pilot for heavier-than-air planes. By 1908 he had already designed his own plane (it crashed) and flown the first US military plane prototype (that too had crashed). He was one of several designated military observers for Orville’s attempt, and on the afternoon of September 17 he was the passenger in a test flight in front of two thousand spectators.
The plane had never carried so much weight, and that proved to be its undoing. A propeller broke, spun off, and hit a rudder; the plane went into a nose dive 22 metres in the air and crashed head-first into the ground. Orville Wright broke ribs and bones but Selfridge got a hit to the skull; he died three hours later.
The Wrights did end up claiming that money the next year, using a modified plane which contained the same engine from the fatal crash. That plane eventually crashed too, although there were no fatalities this time around. The aeronautical division certainly had its share of crashes; between 1907 and 1914, thirteen of its pilots killed – one quarter of the entire pilot team.