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This Day in History: Thomas Selfridge, aviation pioneer

On this day in 1882, a future aviation pioneer is born. Thomas E. Selfridge’s name isn’t well known, but he was among those working to make human flight possible in the early 20th century.


“Though young,” a cataloger for the Smithsonian writes, “he was one of the very few at the time who accurately foresaw a military role for powered aircraft.”


Unfortunately, U.S. Army Lieutenant Selfridge would not live to see the fruits of his labor. Instead, he was among those early pioneers who lost their lives. He unfortunately holds a dubious place in history as the first passenger casualty of flight.

Thomas Selfridge and Orville Wright prior to takeoff on September 17, 1908.

At the time of his passing, Selfridge was the “United States Army’s expert on aviation,” a historian at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, explains. “He would have been a significant figure in American military aviation [had he lived].”


Selfridge had his finger in many pies.


When the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) was established, the young lieutenant joined as an observer for the United States Army. He subsequently became the first in the U.S. military to fly a heavier-than-air plane. He designed a plane for the AEA, and he also worked with Orville and Wilbur Wright when the brothers sought military funding.


On September 17, 1908, Selfridge was at Fort Myer, Virginia, accompanying Orville as the latter demonstrated planes for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. 


“You might as well get in,” Orville reportedly said to Selfridge as the plane was prepared for departure. “We’ll start in a couple of minutes.”


Observers would later report that the airplane seemed sluggish as it took off, not rising as quickly as it had in earlier two-man flights. Perhaps that was unsurprising: At 175 pounds, Selfridge was also heavier than previous passengers. Nevertheless, the plane did get off the ground, flying as high as 75 feet.


The two men were taking their fourth lap around the field when a propeller broke, severing a guy wire.


Orville wasn’t immediately sure what had happened, according to a Baltimore Sun reporter, but he did know that something was “radically wrong.”


“Oh! Oh!” he heard Selfridge cry, but Orville had turned off the engine and was struggling to regain control. He felt as if his plane was “spinning around in the air on a vertical axis before it careened,” as the Baltimore Sun reported.


His efforts were not enough. The plane hit the ground, nose first. Orville later speculated that he might have saved the plane if he’d started from a slightly higher altitude: He was just starting to right the plane when it hit the ground.


Wright survived the crash with a broken thigh and some broken ribs. Unfortunately, Selfridge took a hard hit to the head, and the injury proved mortal.


Orville’s brother Wilbur was then in France, but he soon learned what had happened.


“Now you understand why I always felt that I should be in America with Orville,” he told his business manager. “Two heads are better than one to examine a machine.” He was rattled by the news. “I had rather be killed myself than that we should be responsible for the death of Lieutenant Selfridge.”


Yet Wilbur wasn’t the only one to take the news hard.


“His death awakened the sensibilities of a public,” astronaut Michael Barratt notes, “giddy with the newness of flight, that this was a dangerous business. There were forces to be respected, and operator safety must be added to design wherever possible.”


Aviation had taken a huge hit, but the aviation community wouldn’t be held down for long. Our ancestors were tougher than that: They imagined. They created. They persevered—and they overcame.


Americans doing what Americans do best.

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