On this day — September 17 — in 1908, Lt. Thomas Selfridge became the first person to die in a powered airplane crash. He was the passenger in a plane piloted by Orville Wright, who was demonstrating the Wright Flyer for the U.S. Signal Corps at Ft. Myer, Virginia. Selfridge was killed and Orville was seriously injured when a propeller blade snapped, and the plane plummeted to earth from a height of about 75 feet.
We recently acquired a letter that describes the Selfridge crash. Mrs. Mary D. Winter, wife of Dr. Francis A. Winter of the U.S. Army Medical Corps, witnessed the crash and conveyed her thoughts on the incident to her friend, Mrs. Bliss, wife of General Tasker H. Bliss. The letter is dated September 19, 1908, two days after the crash.
In the portion describing the accident, Mrs. Winter wrote:
Dr. Winter left here on Thursday morning [September 17] on the ninety mile test ride but gets home this afternoon…so he was not here when that horrible accident occurred to Mr. Wright’s aeroplane & poor Mr. Selfridge was killed. I saw it & I can’t get the picture of it & the horror of it out of my mind. The machine moved with the freedom & ease of a bird & I had seen it so often that I had gotten no feeling that there was any danger in it – so much so that I was really crazy to go up in it myself.
Mr. Wright’s faith in his machine & his courage even undaunted so I suppose he will soon be at it again. He is in the hospital here & his sister is with him.
We are glad to have added this item to our collections, as it gives yet another perspective regarding that terrible accident and contributes another small piece of evidence for telling the Wright Brothers’ story.
You may also be interested in reading this letter that Orville’s sister Katharine wrote about the accident.