Wednesday, May 11, 2005


The very first aviation accident

Botched attempts to fly had claimed many lives before the Wright brothers finally launched mankind into the exciting aviation era.

Yet the first aviation accident was destined to happen even as the Wright brothers were still trying to perfect, demonstrate and develop their invention further. It happened in 1908 and is a fascinating part of the history of air travel and aviation accidents.

Much has changed since that first aviation accident.

The most notable is probably the fact that a vast majority of aircraft accidents now happen during take-off and landing. That first aviation accident happened differently.

There were just two people involved. The pilot Orville Wright and Lt Selfridge who was the first secretary of the army’s Aeronautical Experiment Association (AEA) and a man who had followed the experimentation of flying right from the beginning, personally flying and surviving on a few of those dangerous contraptions.

In fact Lt Selfridge was on course to being one of the nation’s leading military aeronautical engineers when that fateful Sept. 17, 1908 aviation accident cut his life and career short.

The aviation accident was later described by Wright himself in a letter to his brother, Wilbur. Here it is:

"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.

When the craft hit the ground Selfridge was thrown against one of the wooden uprights of the framework and his skull was fractured. He died later that evening. He was 26.

Wilbur was hospitalized with serious injuries but lived to fly again.

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Very interesting post. I had no idea about this. Seems like a horrible situation. Thanks for writing it. Well done.
Nice piece of information. This was really a horrible incident.
Sorry, this was not the first 'aviation' accident, and not even the first airplane accident. Many balloonists died prior to the Wright accident, and Langley's aircraft crashed in 1903, but not fatally. Germany's Lillienthal was killed in a glider accident in the 18th Century as well.
Interesting piece, but not quite accurate as a 'first' aviation accident.

A prior aircraft accident that preceded this one was Langley's test flight that crashed into to Potomac River while taking off. Even Otto Lillenthal's glider crash is arguably an 'aircraft' crash that preceded the Wright Brother's aircraft crash which killed Selfridge.
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