Orville Wright and the First Person to Die in an Airplane

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The Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, were the first pilots to have a successful manned flight, when they flew their airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December of 1903. Although many believe the Wright brothers flew together in a plane that historic day, this is untrue. It was brother Orville who flew aloft for 12 seconds that day and proved that man, indeed, could fly. But Orville Wright holds another flying record. He was the pilot of the first flight in history where a passenger died.

Orville Wright demonstrates the plane over Fort Myer, Virginia.

By 1908, five years after the legendary flight, the Wright brothers were traveling all over the United States and Europe demonstrating their fabulous flying machine. Everything went well -until September of 1908. That was when Orville Wright was giving demonstrations of flight at Fort Myer, Virginia.

The U.S. Army was interested in purchasing the Wright brothers' aircraft and using it as a military plane. It was the job of the younger Wright brother to show how safe and practical their plane, "the Flyer," was. Orville Wright had done this before.  

On September 10th, he took the first official passenger, Lieutenant Frank D. Lahm up successfully. Two days later, Orville flew Major George O. Squier around for nine minutes. If these first two flights went swimmingly, the next was to be a catastrophe.

Thomas Selfridge and Orville Wright before takeoff.

It was on September 17, 1908, that Orville Wright took 26-year-old Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge up for another demonstration. A cheering crowd of 2,000 gathered to witness the flight. Selfridge waved to the crowd as the plane took off. Selfridge was the heaviest passenger yet, weighing in at 175 pounds.

Wright flew three laps over the parade ground at approximately 150 feet when he heard a tapping on the plane. Then two big bumps were heard and the plane began shaking. Wright tried turning off the engines and hoped to glide to the ground safely. Then he heard something fall off the plane (it was later discovered to be one of the plane's propellors). The plane wouldn't respond to steering.

Selfridge kept looking at Wright to see how he was reacting. As the plane fell to the height of 75 feet, Selfridge let out an almost inaudible "Oh-oh!" The plane crashed into the ground hard and left a huge cloud of dust.

Orville Wright was disentangled from the crash first. He was bloody but conscious. Thomas Selfridge wasn't so lucky. When he was finally dislodged from the wreckage, he was bloody and unconscious. He was never to regain consciousness.

Both men were rushed to the nearby hospital on stretchers. Selfridge was operated on that night, but he died of a fractured skull. He was the first person ever to die in a plane crash. Selfridge was buried with military honors at Arlington National cemetery.

Orville Wright had escaped death, but he did have a broken leg, several broken ribs, cuts on his head, and several bruises. He was released from the hospital on October 31st. Although he was to walk and fly again, he suffered pain from his fractured hip of the rest of his life.

Wilbur Wright died in 1912. But younger brother Orville survived until 1948, a full forty years after piloting the first fatal plane crash.

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While there was nothing nefarious about this death, Lt. Selfridge was part of a group of rival airplane inventors lead by Alexander Gram Bell and Glenn Curtis (named the Aerial Experiment Association), that the Wright brothers consider thieves of their work. It was because Selfridge was involved with aviation that the military assigned him as a passenger on the flight, but the brothers were very leery of him. Selfridge actually designed the Aerial Experiment Association's first airplane, the Red Wing, which flew, but lacked the stability controls the Wright brothers had invented. If he hadn't died, Selfridge probably would have gone on to be a big name in aviation.
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