Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Wright Brothers And The First Fatal Plane Crash...And Virgnia Completes A 'First Disaster Of It's Kind' Hat Trick

The Wright Brothers And The World's First Fatal Plane Crash
Virginia Completes a 'First Disaster of its Kind' Hat Trick

And now we get to part tres of The Old Dominion's Deadly Hat Trick...Virginia's third 'First Of It's Kind' disaster. Ok, technically, this one wasn't a 'disaster' as it only caused a single fatality and a single serious injury. Then again, it wasn't the accident’s severity that made history…it was the type of accident...the first fatal accident involving a powered, heavier than air aircraft. That's right...the very first fatal plane crash. Ever. Right here in Virginia. It occurred at Fort Myer,  just outside of Washington D.C  in Northern Virginia, and involved  the prototype of the first U.S, military aircraft. The pilot was none other than Orville Wright. His passenger...the unfortunate Army Lieutenant who became the world’s first powered plane crash fatality...was Lt Thomas O Selfridge, who was the first Army officer to pilot a heavier than air aircraft as well as one of the first three soldiers trained by the Army as dirigible pilots. The crash happened on September 17th, 1908 during the plane's acceptance trials...but before we get to the crash, let's take a look at the events that led up to it.

It's a pretty good bet that most everyone's familiar with what happened at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17th, 1903, but to hit the high points real quick…A pair of brothers named Wilbur and Orville took to the skies in an aircraft that looked for all the world like an over-sized box kite with a couple of fans mounted on it.  They got it airborne 4 times during that cold blustery day on The Outer Banks of N.C., managing to keep it in the air for one second shy of a minute and covering 852 feet by the day’s fourth and final flight. Transportation and warfare were both revolutionized... but not immediately. Or, for that matter, even close to immediately.

It's amazing how many people think that within a year or two after The Wright Brothers made those epic first flights the skies were filled with airplanes...primitive and fragile looking airplanes, but airplanes, nonetheless. Of course that's not the way it happened. The Wright Brothers kept much of their work under wraps, their success really wasn't that widely known or reported, and when it was reported it often wasn't believed. (Two guys from Ohio did What??? Fly!?!? And I guess the next thing you’re gonna tell me is these gas-buggy contraptions runnin’ around on the roads are gonna replace the horse...Sheeesh!! )

 A plane didn't officially fly for an entire mile until Glenn Curtis' Junebug accomplished that feat on July 4th, 1908. Note that I said 'Officially'. The Wrights actually did that and more several times over the course of 1904 and 1905. While their first plane...and indeed their subsequent aircraft...looked fragile and primitive, they were actually extremely sophisticated for their time and were in fact the first aircraft truly capable of controlled...barely controlled at first, but controlled none the less…flight.

The original Wright Flyer was rolled into a ball of fabric and wood by a wind gust shortly after that final Dec 17th '03 flight, so when Wilbur and Orville returned to their home town of Dayton, they shipped the wreck home with them and cannibalized it to build a second aircraft, improving on the design of the first slightly. Over the last six months of 1904 they either tried to get the new 'Flyer, known as Wright Flyer II in the air or actually got it in the air a total of 105 times, staying up a grand total of about 45 minutes. Divide 105 by 45, and you can see that they weren't making any epic cross-country journeys just yet.

Another problem they had to overcome in their home town of Dayton, Ohio was the absence of the sustained breeze that Kitty Hawk enjoyed. While they had a perfect flying field...Huffman Prairie several miles outside of Dayton, owned by a Dayton banker who gave them permission to use it and located on an interurban line for easy access...they didn't have that nice steady sustained breeze that helped them get airborne in N.C. On top of that, and unbeknown to them, a design change in the dihedral (Up-slant from wing root to wing tip when viewed head on) of the Flyer IIs wings had actually slightly reduced the wings’ lift. They could get the Flyer in the air after a fashion…but were only managing short hops, and not enough altitude to try any maneuvers other than straight flight. So, at the same time they were brainstorming modifications to their airplane they had to brainstorm a way to help boost it into the air.  In the process the Wrights came up with a solution that was as elegant as it was simple and straight-forward.
They built a 16 foot high derrick assembly that would be positioned to the rear of the Flyer's launching track. A weight of up to 1400 pounds would be hoisted to the top of the derrick. This weight would be attached to a rope that first passed through a 3 to1 Mechanical Advantage block and tackle, then a pulley at the bottom of the derrick. It then ran along and beneath the starting track's rail, over another pulley at the take-off end of the rail, and back to the Flyer's wheeled launching trolley. Crank up the Flyer, wind her engine out, yank the retaining pin at the same time the weight's released, and get about a 3600 pound kick in the butt to help get in the air. Their catapult worked perfectly, and gave them the extra boost they needed to get enough altitude to maneuver the Flyer through turns and circling flights rather than just straight line flight.

A good shot of the Wrights launching catapult...The catapult's 'cocked', with the weights at the top of the derrick. You can see the tow rope running beneath the launch rail, it would have rounded a pulley at the end of the rail and run back to the launching dolly the flyer sat on on the rail. Note that the engine's running and (I believe) Wilbur's just about getting ready to pull the release for the weights. That'd be Orville on the far side of the Flyer, and another launch crew member on the right wing tip. This pic was actually taken in 1909, in Italy, a year or so after the Fort Myer crash, and several modifications had been made to the Flyer since the crash..

During the course of these flights they tinkered with the plane’s design, and made improvements, and with the help of the catapult, actually managed to stay in the air for a decent length of time on a couple of occasions. Their best two flights were each about 5 minutes long and covered about three miles on a circular course at an average speed of about 36 MPH. Of course before they were able to fly a circular course they had to learn how to coordinate turning and banking the thing to get it to change direction in a controllable fashion. Doesn't sound like a big deal now, but trust me...back then it was. Getting a heavier than air craft in the air wasn't the biggest hurdle. Getting it in the air, maintaining controlled flight, and getting it back on the ground with both plane and pilot intact enough after landing to fly again, however, was.

A shot of the Wright Flyer II during one of the October 1904 flights when it flew 4 laps pf Huffman Prairie for a distance of about 5 miles. Pic courtesy WrightBros.org,
Even as The Wrights were making these first tentative hops they were thinking about how they could use their plane(s) to make a profit. They contacted The Secretary of War by letter through their Congressman on January 18th, 1905 with an offer to sell the U.S. Army the first practical heavier than air aircraft.  Problem was, The War Department had been burned badly a couple of years earlier when Sam Langley’s Aerodrome, which the U.S. Government had supported to the tune of $50,000 worth of R&D funds, failed spectacularly. The Secretary of War politely declined.

The Wrights took the rejection in stride, and spent the winter of 1905 building a third aircraft. Now, anyone who has ever experienced a Dayton, Ohio winter knows that flying an aircraft with marginal performance and no protection what so ever for the pilot during that Ohio winter would be a frigid, not to mention downright dangerous, undertaking. So they stayed dry and warm inside their shop while building the new Flyer, gazing at it longingly and chomping at the bits until the weather warmed back up and they could get back in the air. They tinkered with it, and got the engine running right and finally flew it for the first time on June 23rd, 1905, the idea of selling it to the U.S. Army still very much on their minds.

Even with all of the improvements that they’d made to the new Flyer…known to history as Flyer III…the plane’s performance was only slightly better than marginal. So marginal, in fact, that Orville augured it in on July 14th...only three weeks after its first flight. Luckily for him a crash at thirty or so Miles Per Hour from twenty feet up is a far different animal from a crash at the speeds and altitudes attainable even three years later, much less the speeds and altitudes of ten years...or ten decades..in the future.  Orville climbed from the wreckage without a scratch. The plane, however, was all but totaled.

So they sat down and brainstormed and critiqued the crash and the plane's handling and performance, and examined the plans and the wreck while rubbing their chins thoughtfully, decided what new design changes needed to be made, and rebuilt the plane, making major changes. The boom supporting the elevators, in front of the wings, was lengthened to make it nearly twice as long as originally designed. Rudders and elevators were both enlarged. Vertical vanes were added to the front boom to enhance yaw stability. A larger fuel tank was installed, and twin radiators were installed to enhance engine cooling during the longer flights they hoped to achieve. After the rebuild, they ended up with what was basically a new airplane, even though it's still considered the third Wright Flyer.

On October 5th, 1905, Wilber made their best flight to date, staying up for just shy of 40 minutes and covering 24 miles...better than the entire elapsed time and distance of all of the 1903 and 1904 flights, and better than the total distance flown in all three years combined up to the 24 mile flight. Wilber and Orville again contacted The Secretary of War, sending a letter through their Congressman, again advertising that they had the worlds very first practical aircraft, and inviting the U. S. Army to purchase it. And again the Secretary of War replied that they were not interested in financing the development of an aircraft, but were interested in an actual finished ready to fly project.

Winter was fast approaching once again, and The Wrights were having little or no success selling their airplane to the government. They decided to ground the plane while they waited on a U.S. Patent. By late 1905 the Wrights weren't the only ones working on a practical aircraft, they were just miles ahead of everyone else, and they wanted to keep it that way by patenting their control systems in order to keep them...well, theirs. While they were waiting on the U.S. patent, they also decided to try to drum up business with other governments as well as tweaking their design. To shorten and greatly over-simplify the story...while negotiating with European governments, they made a contact in the U.S. Army who contacted higher ups on the board of Ordnance and Fortification, which finally became interested in the Wright's design, and through this protracted and round-a-bout path the Army finally ended buying a Wright Flyer. Interestingly enough, the contract that was ultimately awarded to the Wrights was worded in such a way that they were the only ones thought to be capable of winning it. This almost backfired when the Board of Ordnance and Fortification received over eighty bids...a couple of them lower than the 25,000 dollar bid quoted by the Wrights.

The contract was conditionally awarded to the Wrights on February 10th, 1908.. Then in March 1908 they also entered into an arrangement with a French syndicate to demonstrate and sell airplanes in Europe. So when time to demonstrate the planes arrived, they'd have to split forces. Wilber would go to Europe, Orville would handle the acceptance trials for the Army, to be held at Fort Myer, Va.

Keep in mind that the last time Orville and Wilbur had flown was in October of 1905...two and a half years earlier. Not only were they probably a bit rusty, they had modified the seating and controls (They now sat on a bench seat on the lower wing rather than lying prone, and vertical sticks that operated the control surfaces rather than a hip cradle). They shipped the plane to the site of their first flight...Kitty Hawk, N.C...familiarized themselves with the new controls, and got more than a few practice hops in. During the last of their 1908 Kittyhawk flights, on May 14th,  Wilbur  managed to ‘Bend the Bird’. He moved one of the new control sticks the wrong way, and hit the sand hard enough to as they say, leave a mark…and to break the boom supporting the Flyer’s forward mounted elevators. Their test flights in N.C. ended for good  and Flyer III was moved back to her hanger, where she resided in her damaged state for years.

Even with Wilbur pranging Flyer III, they were more than pleased with the plane’s performance…but now they didn’t have a plane to use in the trials at Fort Myer. So, after leaving N.C.  they didn't have time to play around. The Army wanted the Flyer delivered to Fort Meyer no later than August 28th 1908. They had to get crackin'...they had two planes to get completed and ready for acceptance trials, and one of them had to be shipped to France. And they had about three months to get it done.

Not to worry though…not only did they manage to get both planes ready, Orville arrived at Fort Myer with the Flyer eight days early, on August 20th 1908. And most importantly, no one else showed up with a working airplane, making the Wrights, just as the Army intended, the only game in town. The planes built for the demonstrations in Europe and at Fort Meyer have historically been designated 'The Wright Model 'A', though there is some controversy as to whether it was indeed a completely new aircraft, or just the Flyer III design with some tweaks. Two of the tweaks were, of course, upright seating and the new control system. The new system, as installed on Orville's Flyer at Fort Meyer utilized a trio of levers...a single lever to the left and ahead of the pilot that controlled the elevators and a pair of levers to the right and ahead of the pilot...the inner lever controlled the rudder, and the outer lever controlled the wing-warping, controlling pitch. (Bet that was fun to try and coordinate during a turn!)

Here are the vital statistics of the Wright Model 'A', courtesy of Wright-Bros,org

Wright Model 'A'

Wright Model A specifications:
  • 41 ft (12.3 m) wingspan
  • 6.5 ft (198 cm) chord
  • 6 ft (183 cm) separation (Between upper and lower wing)
  • 510 sq ft (46.7 sq. m) wing area
  • 1:20 camber
  • 70 sq ft (7.7 sq m) double horizontal front rudder (Elevator)
  • 23 sq ft (3.2 sq m) twin movable vertical rear rudders (These are what caused the crash...keep readin' )
  • 31 ft (8.5 m) overall length
  • 800 lb (362.9 kg) total weight (without pilot)
  • 4 cylinder engine, 31 hp at 1425 rpm
  • Two contra-rotating propellers, 8-1/2 ft (244 cm) long, turning at 445 rpm
  • 37 mph (60 kph) average speed

The Wright Model 'A' cockpit, as flown at Fort Myer. The lever on the far left...the one pushed all the way forward...controlled the elevators. the pair of levers ahead of the seat controlled the rudder (Inner lever) and wing-warping (Outer lever). The cylindrical object next to and above the engine is the fuel tank, fuel feed was simple gravity feed. And yes, the fuel tank was every bit as close to the seat as it looks .
Of course, the New and Improved Flyer still had to meet the contractual minimum specs.  They had thirty days to complete the acceptance trials, which would consist of speed and endurance trials. There would be three trials for each acceptance test. The speed trial required a speed of 40 MPH over a measured five mile course. The endurance/distance trial required the Flyer to stay in the air for at least an hour without landing, and there would also be three tries to accomplish that. The Board couldn't legally award a bonus for speeds greater than 40 MPH, but they could get around that by asking the Wrights to submit pricing for speeds from 41-44 MPH. Ten percent, or $2,500 per MPH was the agreed upon price with a deduction of the same amount for each MPH below 40, down to 36. A top speed of less than thirty-six MPH would result in rejection. Orville got cracking, both to prepare the Flyer for the trials, and to practice for them.

Things did not go smoothly at first....it took Orville and one of his mechanics a day or so to get the engine to run right. They finally got the thing to run right on September 2nd...and preceded to have a minor accident, the specifics of which weren't noted. On September 3rd Orville got it in the air...but after one circle of the parade ground, he had to make an emergency landing (Engine problems again?) and damaged the landing skids. It didn't take him but a day or so to fix it, but the one flight he got in on the Sept. 4th was less than five minutes long. The weather kept him on the ground the 5th, and the 6th was a Sunday. He got it in the air the 7th...but their fourth flight back in Dec 1903 was four seconds longer than this flight.

On September 8th he finally got some decent flights in...the longest a shade over 11 minutes, and that one would have been longer except for the fact that he'd left his goggles on the ground and landed to get them after 13 laps of the parade ground. Things really got cooking on the ninth when he made a trio of flights...one just under an hour, the second just over an hour. The final flight that day was only about six and a half minutes, but he carried a passenger on that one.

The next day he made a flight of an hour and ten minutes, during which he switched it up a bit... twice instead of completing a circle around the parade field, he flew the plane in a figure 8, probably both to practice maneuvering the bird, and to show off both his skills and the plane's capabilities. On the 12th Major George Squire went up with him, and they circled the field for just a hair longer than nine minutes. Major Squire was thrilled with the ride, telling reporters that 'That was simply splendid! I want some more of that. I’ve never enjoyed anything more in my life’.


Even though the U.S. Army didn’t have any airplanes in September of 1908, they did have a fledgling Aeronautical division that had been around since at least The Civil War. It was attached to the Army Signal Corps and consisted of both tethered observation balloons and a single powered dirigible. One of the Signal Corp Aeronautical Branch’s Lieutenants…Lt Thomas Selfridge…was watching Orville Wright’s practice flights with great interest.  Lt Selfridge already had a distinguished career, but that would only be fitting. One of his fellow West Point Class of 1903  members was a dude named Douglas MacArthur who as some of you may recall, went on to have a ‘minor’ bit of career success as well as a bit  of notoriety and fame during World War II

Thomas Selfridge
After graduating 31st in his class (His soon-to-be-distinguished classmate was #1) Selfridge was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and assigned to the 5th Regiment of Field Artillery…an assignment he served until 1907. Thomas Selfridge also had a keen interest in flight, and this led him to offer his services to the Wright Brothers that same year. They turned down his help as they wanted only full time assistants. That being the case, Tom Selfridge looked up another fellow who we’ve all heard of…Dude by the name of Alexander Graham Bell. Another fact that many people don’t know...Ol’ A.G. Bell also had a keen interest in flying.

The two of them met in the Spring of ’07, and Bell was impressed by Selfridge’s intelligence and knowledge of Aeronautics (A field that wasn’t exactly over-loaded with talent in 1907). He was so impressed, in fact, that he got then-president Teddy Roosevelt’s permission to have Selfridge assigned as the official Army flight observer for some flight demonstrations that Bell was getting ready to perform.  My bet’s that Bell was also instrumental in getting Selfridge to become a charter member of the Aerial Experiment Association (A.E.A.), a five member organization dedicated to designing and flying a practical aircraft. While he was a member of that group Selfridge actually designed a plane that was designated Aerodrome #1 but nicknamed ‘Red Wing’ after the color of the silk used to cover its wings. He designed it but didn’t actually get to fly it. One of the other members actually flew it for a grand total of 319 feet before crashing. Selfridge did get a chance to fly Aerodrome # 2 though (This one nicknamed White Wing) on May 19th, 1908  for a distance of 93 yards at an altitude of 10 feet. Though it was pretty clear that the AEA wasn’t exactly breathing down the Wrights’ neck, this feat gave Selfridge the title of First Army Officer to Pilot An Aircraft. Unfortunately this would not end up being what he’d be best known for.
The A.E.A.'s White Wing, which Selfridge flew to become the first Army officer to pilot a powered heavier than air aircraft. The plane's best flight (With Glenn Curtis at the controls) was 1017 feet, Selfridge's flight was just under 300 feet.  One often over looked feature of this airplane was that it was one of the first, if not the first plane with wheeled landing gear...tricycle landing gear at that!

Shortly after piloting White Wing, Selfridge was transferred to the Army Signal Corp Aeronautical division, at Fort Myer, Va where he’d help design the Army’s first powered aircraft… a 93 foot long, 20,000 Cubic foot gas capacity dirigible powered by a 20 HP Curtis engine. She could make a sizzling 19.6 MPH with the throttle fire-walled, but was more comfortable cruising at about 13 MPH. After assisting with the design of the dirigible, Selfridge became one of the first three soldiers to be trained to fly it. The dirigible was to be stationed at Fort Omaha, Nebraska, and Selfridge was to accompany it there and was to make demonstration flights at the Missouri State Fair, in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Three views of the first Army dirigible, officially the SC-1, at it's acceptance trials at Fort Myer in August 1908 as well as a 'Cigarette card' with a painting depicting the craft. Selfridge was trained to fly this beast to become of of the first three U.S. Army pilots. He had been assigned to accompany it to  St Joseph, Mo for public demonstrations, and was to leave on that assignment two days after the Wright Flyer crash.

Though he was a certified dirigible pilot, Selfridge’s primary interest was heavier than air aircraft, and he seriously wanted to go up in the Wright Flyer to see how it compared with the aircraft that the A.E.A. had put together. He had actually gotten himself scheduled to go up on September 18th…but The Army almost threw a wrench into the works when he got his orders for Omaha.  He was supposed to leave for Omaha on the 19th, so he asked if he could go up earlier. There were two Navy officers also scheduled to fly as observers. One of them, Lt George Sweet, agreed to switch off with Selfridge, Orville Wright agreed to the change, and Selfridge was now slated to go up on the early evening of September 17th.

The wind kicked up on September 15th and 16th, keeping the Flyer on the ground, but this didn't mean that Team Orville took a couple of days off...they had some serious work to do before the next flight. Orville and his mechanic were checking out a pair of new propellers that he’d fabricated for the Flyer. He planned to make a practice speed run on the 17th if the wind died down, and if he had time, maybe make the first of the three timed runs. In order to make sure he got all he could get out the Flyer’s home-brewed four cylinder 31 horsepower engine, he was going to swap the original 8.5 foot props for a pair that were about six inches longer…this would prove to be a really really bad idea.

They worked on The Flyer for much of the 17th, and it wasn't taken out of its shed and moved to the launching track until about quarter to five that afternoon. Selfridge walked out to the Flyer with Orville and his mechanic, probably walking around the bird with them as they preflighted it, then they got on board, a pair of ground crew members 'propped' it (Sharply pulling both propellers around simultaniousy to start the engine), and the engine coughed and roared to life. Orville advanced the throttle, and the crew released both the catapult weights and the weights that kept errant wind gusts from flipping the Flyer. The catapult yanked the plane down the launch rail, the wheeled trolley that it rode on rumbling beneath them. It was about quarter past when the Flyer lifted off of her launching trolley…thirty minutes after she was wheeled out of the shed. Thomas Selfridge had about four minutes to live.

Thomas Selfridge, closest to the camera, and Orville Wright, with his trademark cap, aboard the Flyer just minutes before the fatal crash...the engine was running, and they were almost ready to go.  Note the foot rests  The cylindrical object with the pointed end is the fuel tank BTW...inches from Selfridge's shoulder.
Selfridge was the heaviest passenger to go up in the Flyer, a fact that Orville Wright may not have fully compensated for. The Flyer reached the end of the launch rail, lifted off and started up, then, despite the extra kick in the pants from the catapult, settled briefly, skimming the ground lightly for a few feet. A couple of people noted more dust rising from the right side of the plane than the left, but only for a brief instant as the bird gained a few feet of altitude while flying across the parade ground, and finally climbed to about 150 ft and began circling the field.  A crowd of around 2000 was watching the demonstration. Selfridge waved as they passed over the crowd, obviously enjoying himself.

Orville Wright and Thomas Selfridge were seated on the small bench seat on the leading edge of the lower wing, wind whipping past them and whistling through the Flyer’s bracing wires and struts, the four cylinder engine roaring behind them accompanied by the metallic clatter of the twin drive chains and the whirring of the two big props.  Orville coordinated the rudder and wing warping, banking and bringing them around for the fourth circuit of the parade ground. He glanced down to see the Flyer’s shed passing under them, looked back up, and cocked his ear as he heard another sound, one that was most definitely not normal…a rapid, distinct tapping. At the same time the Flyer developed a sudden tendency to turn to the left. Something was definitely not right, Orville decided to put it on the ground…right then. He realized they were heading towards Arlington Cemetery, which borders Fort Myer, and let the Flyer’s sudden tendency to turn keep them coming around, lining them up with the parade ground. At the same time, he killed the engine, and put the nose down a bit, to get them down more quickly…all he’d have to do is get the Flyer down to ten or so feet above the parade ground, level her out and let her sink until the skids touched down and she slid along the ground to a stop. A perfect dead stick landing, a very common occurrence in the early years of aviation.

On the ground the spectators watched the Flyer complete the turn, and realized that the engine’s chugging roar has suddenly stopped  and that her nose had angled downward…but at first there was no real concern. Again, engine failures were not an unusual feature of early aviation, even though the Wrights’ engines were actually pretty reliable. Someone on the ground probably commented ‘Well Tom’s flight sure got cut short’…and that’s when everyone heard the two sharp ‘POP’s, and every head tilted upward, and several thousand pair of eyes watched something spin away from the plane, twirling to its right and flying about sixty feet before hitting the ground.

Orville was concentrating hard, the drive chains clattering behind him as the windmilling props whirred behind them. Other than the drive chains, and that same clicking, the only sound was the rush and whistling of the wind. The Flyer had lost about 60 feet of altitude when the two sharp pops…one behind Orville and to his right, the second an instant later to his left…bounced off of his ear drums like a drumstick off a bass drum, and in that same instant Orville realized he had big  problems. The Flyer first pitched up…maybe even gaining a little altitude…then her nose pitched down again, and she started losing altitude far faster than Orville intended as she continued to move forward. Tom Selfridge glanced over at Orville as he yanked the stick for the elevators...located to the left of the seat rather than being combined with the center stick as would become normal practice only a few years later...back hard, with no apparent effect what so ever. ‘Maybe the damn things are stuck’ he silently reasoned, and cycled the stick…shoving it all the way forward then yanking it all the way back so hard that he and Selfridge probably heard the elevator bump against its stop.

That did it, but definitely not what he wanted it to do. The Flyer’s nose suddenly pitched violently downward, and she headed almost straight down. Fast! Next to him, Orville heard Selfridge say ‘OH!! OH!! as he strained back hard on the stick. In front of them the twin elevators angled up all the way to their stops. About 15 feet…less than a second…above the ground the elevators finally bit air and the Flyer’s nose started angling away from the vertical…if he’d had 25 more feet of altitude she may have at least come close to leveling out, and Orville could have landed it...it would have been a hard landing, and the Flyer would have been damaged, but they'd have made it out with minor injuries...

Both Orville Wright and Thomas Selfridge were hanging on for dear life, their feet pressed hard against the wooden board that acted as a footrest as the Flyer made its near vertical dive towards the ground. A pair of crossed bracing wires directly in front of them was the only thing that kept them from tumbling forward and free falling to the ground...one thing the Flyer apparently was not equipped with was seat belts. The Flyer was going about 40 Miles Per Hour when she slammed into the ground at a 45 degree angle with a cracking crunch, raising a cloud of dust that hid the wreck for a second or so as it hit. The left corner of the elevators hit first, snapping the wooden boom supporting them and folding both boom and elevators back into Orville Wright and Tom Selfridge. The engine ripped loose from its mountings and shot forward at the same time, twisting and slamming hard into the back of the seat, ripping it loose and kicking it upward into Selfridge, engine and seat pinning him hard against the collapsed boom for the elevators as part of the support structure caught him just above his right eye. The seat and engine missed Orville but his legs were straight out, the wooden footrest digging into the soles of his shoes when they hit.. The footrest shattered and shot back, probably between the two of them as Orville hit the ground hard, and ended up lying on the crossed bracing wires that prevented them from falling out of the aircraft.The fuel tank stayed intact, saving both of them from the horrible death from the fire that would ultimately become an almost inevitable feature of a plane crash. Some fuel may have  leaked, but if it did it simply soaked into the ground and didn’t find an ignition source.

A shot of the crash scene only  minutes  after the Flyer crashed. Note the collapsed elevators on the ground and the soldiers lifting the left wing to get to Orville Wright and Thomas Selfridge

A mounted sentry at the West Gate to Arlington Cemetery, about 90 feet from the point of impact got a ringside seat to the crash, and watched Orville struggling both to pull the Flyer’s nose up, and to stay with the aircraft as it hurtled towards the ground. He was worried that the plane was heading straight at him for a second, and reined his mount around and trotted away from the gate, watching as the plane slammed into the ground. Once the Flyer impacted the ground, he headed for the crash site at a gallop, becoming the first person on scene. As the crash site was about a half mile from the launch rail he was by himself for a couple of minutes that probably seemed more like a couple of hours before help started arriving en masse.

The engine was probably ticking as it cooled and the air probably reeked of hot oil and gasoline. Orville was lying face down on top of the same crossed bracing wires that had kept him from falling out of the Flyer. His right arm was beneath Selfridge…who was lying face down next to him, unconscious and partially beneath the engine and the seat. Orville was moaning in pain as he tried to lift himself, with no success. He said ‘Oh…my arm, then ‘Someone lift the motor, please…’

Another view of the Flyer after the crash. The bottom wing is to the right in this pic. Soldiers between the wings are working to extricate Thomas Selfridge from the wreckage, Orville Wright has been removed at this point.The wing structure held up quite well, considering. The rudders and the way they collapsed sideways so they were horizontal after the prop cut the bracing wire are visible on the top right of the frame, next to the bottom wing

Men lift the left wing to remove Thomas Selfridge. The group at the extreme right of the frame is attending to Orville Wright. This is looking towards the left side top of the aircraft.  The elevators are on the ground right mid frame, near the guy's who's pointing towards the group working on Orville. If you look immediately to the right of his hand you can see the broken propeller. The collapsed rudders are hidden by the lifted wing.
The sentry called for a hand from the soldiers who were arriving on the scene…While the elevator and it’s boom had collapsed backward when they hit the ground the basic structure of the two wings was still pretty intact, leaving Orville Wright and Thomas Selfridge lying between them, as if they were between a pair of six foot high fabric covered fences. Getting Orville out was the easy part, especially with the total lack of immobilization/spinal protection afforded accident victims 105 years ago. Accident victims were just lifted and carried, so several of the soldiers lifted him, carried him out from between the Flyer’s wings, then laid him on the ground where doctors from the base hospital began treating him.

Extricating Selfridge was a little trickier. He was beneath the engine and seat, and partially beneath the leading edge of the lower wing as well as entangled in the collapsed boom. Several soldiers and onlookers lifted the left wings, others went between the wings and lifted the engine and seat bodily off of him, and eased him out from beneath the wing and boom, then carefully carried him out of the wreckage and laid him on the ground, still unconscious. He and Orville Wright were quickly loaded in an ambulance and carried to the base hospital.

Orville Wright is carried to a waiting...and probably horse drawn...ambulance to be taken to the base hospital. You're looking at the bottom of the aircraft...note the landing skid beyond Orville. The broken propeller blade can be seen above him, to the right of the rudders.

Orville suffered a couple of broken ribs, a fracture of his left femur, and severe cuts and contusions on his face.  Selfridge was in far worse shape…he suffered a depressed skull fracture just above his right eye. Orville Wright would spend two months in the hospital recovering from his injuries. Thomas Selfridge died at ten minutes past eight that night without regaining consciousness. He would be buried with full Military Honors at Arlington National cemetery on September 25th.

Then as now, crowd control became a real problem, real quick. Mounted soldiers were placed around the wrecked plane almost before the dust settled and Orville Wright and Thomas Selfridge were removed form it. As Orville Wright and Thomas Selfridge were removed to the base hospital, the first...ever...aircraft crash investigation began in earnest.

The wrecked flyer after Orville and Thomas Selfridge had both been extricated. looking from the left side of the aircraft, with the bottom wing to the right. The forward boom for the elevators is little more than shattered kindling beneath the aircraft while part of the also broken tail boom is visible slanting upward left to right diagonally, upper mid frame. The rudders are just out of the frame, upper right. The wing structure withstood the crash extremely well.  If you look upper mid frame, directly below the intact left propeller and you can see the broken right propeller blade. Note that the fuel tank, while knocked out of alignment in it's brackets, is intact and didn't rip free...likely an extremely lucky thing for Orville Wright. The engine, however, is no longer mounted on the bottom wing as it did tear loose form it's mounts and shoot forward. It also apparently swung sideways...to the left...and walloped the back of the bench seat.

OK...Rob's gonna speculate again! So, what exactly caused the Flyer to auger in on that September early evening nearly 105 years ago? Simple...the propellers became speed brakes and rudder suddenly became an elevator...but it took some real bad luck for all of that to happen. A civil engineer named Octave Chenault who was also an early aviation enthusiast as well as a good friend of the Wrights, was standing about 500 feet away from the crash site when The Flyer threw the propeller blade.and Orville struggled to control her for about a half a mile before she quit flying and suddenly went straight in. He was one of the first to examine the wreck...which was dismantled and moved to the shed shortly after the crash...and came to some conclusions. One of these conclusions was that the props were not as robust as they should have been...the wood had been kiln dried, making them brittle. This caused a 30 inch long piece of the right prop to break away and slam into the spinning left prop, which smacked the broken hunk of right prop for a line drive for about 60 feet before it hit the ground. Also, remember the dust rising from behind the right side of the Flyer? And the longer propellers that were installed for the speed run? Some theorized that the extra 6 inches of the new propellers caused the right prop to strike the ground as Orville struggled to gain altitude in the ill fated flight's first few seconds, causing the initial crack in the blade. There are people who believe this to this very day, and it's a very viable possibility.

 But the right prop coming apart isn't what caused the Flyer to crash...Orville had cut the power by then, so the prop was only windmilling. Had it been under power (A) the vibration caused by the unbalanced propeller would have been catastrophic, and (B) the left propeller would have probably tossed the broken piece way further than 60 feet.

Remember the tapping Orville heard that caused him to cut the power in the first place?  The tapping was the key. When The Flyer's engine was running, there was a fair amount of vibration, even though their engines were pretty high tech for the day...the original 1903 Wright Flyer's engine was one of the first 4 cylinder engines and all of the Wrights' engines used a primitive form of fuel injection. Now, while they were comparatively high tech and smooth running for that era, they still were far from what we consider 'smooth'.  The combination of the vibration, the props' extra length, and possibly their brittleness all combined to cause a one in a million catastrophe.

First, one of the right prop blades split, lengthwise and diagonally, for a few inches and the centrifugal force of the spinning prop caused that few inches to pull outward, causing it to start lightly tapping a bracing wire. If it had been one of the wing braces, it probably wouldn't have been a catastrophic problem...Orville and Wilbur were actually pretty decent aeronautical engineers, and they built a lot of redundant strength into the Flyer's wings...both the spars and the bracing. But there was just so much redundancy capable of being built into the boom that the rudders were mounted on, side by side behind the Flyer. They were mounted, of course, so they pivoted on a vertical axis to make the bird turn. From a drawing of the flyer, it looks like there were 8 bracing wires...two top and two bottom on each side, probably attached to a fitting right at the rudders' pivots (Unlike modern aircraft, where the rudder is a movable section of the fixed vertical stabilizer, the Flyer's twin rudders moved as an entire unit, like a ship's rudder) As the prop started tapping the bracing wire, it caused several things to happen.

First, it probably started shifting the rudders out of alignment just enough to cause The Flyer to have that sudden tendency to try to turn to the left. Next, each time the tip hit the wire, the fracture in the blade got a little longer and a little deeper. At some point two things happened simultaneously. The fitting where the wire attached to the rudder, after getting yanked who-knows-how many times as the prop tapped it, ripped loose. At the same instant, the prop blade broke two and a half feet from the tip when the fracture finally went clean through the blade...this was the first loud POP!' that everyone heard. The second 'POP!! was the broken section of prop blade getting smacked by the still-windmilling left prop.

Now, the two top bracing wires on that side probably attached at the same point on the tail boom, and when the first fitting ripped loose, the rudder, already pulled out of alignment, put added stress on the second fitting, and it either pulled loose, or pivoted. This overstressed the remaining two top bracing wires, and they probably pulled loose, allowing the rudders to fall sideways until they were horizontal, or nearly horizontal, causing them to act as an elevator. And the forward elevator (Properly called a canard) and aft rudder turned elevator began fighting with each other for pitch control.

Now aircraft have been designed with both fore and aft control surfaces, called three plane or three surface design, and the surfaces, from nose to tail, would be canard, wing, and tailplane or horizontal stabilizer.  The Wright Brothers also experimented with the concept later, and there are a few aircraft that use it flying today. The key phrase there is designed with. The forward and aft control surfaces are deigned to work together. In some cases only one of the horizontal surfaces is an elevator, controlling pitch, while the other adds lift, or stability, or enhances slow speed handling and stall characteristics as well as short field performance. Again, the key word is designed as in that third horizontal surface is supposed to be there.

The problem occurs when that third horizintal surface is not supposed to be there, and worse, suddenly appears mid flight, creating extra drag and completely destroying your ability to control pitch.  Due to the laws of aerodynamics, and physics, and other classes that I struggled through in high school and college, in that scenario the two control surfaces are going to fight to see which one actually controls the aircraft's pitch and the aft-most control surface is going to win that fight. If  this sudden third horizontal surface is a rudder that collapses sideways and suddenly becomes an elevator that's not supposed to be there in the first place, can't be moved and is causing the tail to lift and the nose to drop, you are going to fly the airplane into the ground no matter how much airspeed you have unless  you have a LOT of altitude to recover and a huge canard control surface to overcome the 'rebel' elevator.

I don't think the fallen rudder caused the initial dive though. Oh, it contributed greatly, and was probably the cause of the nose pitching up just before she dived. But Orville had a couple of other problems as well. First, The Flyer was now a glider...one that wasn't designed to be a glider at that. Then he had those two huge props windmilling behind him. Propellers only provide thrust when they are being turned by a power source. When they are unpowered, and are being turned by the slipstream...windmilling...they become big drag-generating speed-brakes. It's literally almost like throwing a pair of solid discs the same diameter as the prop's length into the slipstream. This huge amount of extra drag very possibly...even very likely...caused his airspeed to drop below the Flyers stall speed (The speed where the airflow over the wings becomes too low to generate lift, causing the aircraft to stop flying). This could have even caused the initial dive...remember the nose rising sharply before the Flyer dived? That's probably when all that extra drag caused by the props and the fallen rudder stalled the airplane.

Once she entered the fatal dive, what I'll very non-technically call the 'Two Control Surfaces Fighting For Control' issue took effect. Orville had big forward control surfaces...the twin forward elevators were about three times as big as the twin rudders...and he now had airspeed thanks to the dive, but he didn't have the altitude to recover, and  having no power and that pair of windmilling  nine foot diameter speed-brakes behind him pretty much killed most of his options to do so. Had he had power, and intact propellers, and some more altitude, he could have possibly powered out of the dive and made a controlled crash...but he had none of the above (And if had had all of the above, he wouldn't be diving for the ground in the first place). All he could do was heave back on the stick and hope he got her leveled out.

 As if he didn't have enough working against him, even if he'd had enough altitude to bring the nose up, he just might have had yet another problem...and it's name is 'porpoising, or more technically and correctly, pitch oscillation. That'd be the nose rising, as the elevator finally became effective, then pitching down again as the fallen rudder caught the slipstream and kicked the nose back down. We don't know for sure this was happening...Orville was actually at less than 100 feet when the Flyer stalled and began it's dive.. But if pitch oscillations were indeed a factor, Orville would have had to have the luck, skill, and timing to recover and get the Flyer leveled out a couple of feet off of the ground so he could 'stick the landing' so to speak...put the skids on the ground in that second or so the flyer was flying level before the nose pitched down again.. It would have been a rough landing, and it wouldn't have been pretty, but it would have been survivable.  Even with everything that was working against him, he actually almost pulled it off...several witnesses, as well as Orville himself, noted that the nose was trying to come up when they hit. The angle they hit at...about 45 degrees...bears this out.

One thing you definitely have to give Orville...he was a pilot's pilot before that term was even coined. It's said that if you know you're going to crash, you should fly the aircraft until it stops letting you do so, in order to try to make the crash more survivable, and he did just that, trying to get the nose back up all the way in...and he almost pulled it off despite the fact that the Wright Flyers were among the most difficult aircraft to fly ever built.

And Virginia once again got the dubious distinction of having yet another first of it's kind disaster.

<***>Notes and Links, and Stuff<***>

Took me a little longer that I thought to get this one up, because, well, I took a break, It is after all, summer! I almost had the opposite problem with this post that I've had with others. There is, of course, tons of information on The Wright Brothers, their aircraft, their flights, and even of the Fort Myer crash. I had to pick and choose just what I wanted to use. I had to include some history of the Wrights' exploits and accomplishments leading up to the crash, but this post isn't a history lesson about the Wrights...it's about that first fatal air crash, so I had to kind of 'skim through' their first years of flights, and the aircraft they built and flew. I'll deal with their early aircraft in another post!

As for my analysis of the crash...hopefully it makes sense. Orville attributed the crash wholly to the rudder falling over with the prop coming apart being a contributing factor, but things such as the behavior of canard control surfaces and the basic fact that an unpowered, wind-milling propeller becomes a speed brake that are understood today weren't understood or even known of in 1908. They would become understood soon though, as technology evolved...and a little skirmish known as World War I caused technology to advance with unbelievable rapidity. But that's a subject for another post or a dozen on another blog! 

As for this one...hope everyone enjoyed it, and learned something!


You'd think that crashing...and causing the death of a soldier at that...would have been a literal deal breaker for the Wrights as far as the U.S.Army was concerned, but this was far from the truth. Even though, technically, they were in default because they hadn't completed either the speed or distance/duration trials successfully and there was no way they could do so with-in thirty days the Army was satisfied that they had indeed built a practical airplane. They were given an extension to June 1909 to successfully complete the trials, an extension that was again extended to July 31st, 1909. The official reasoning behind granting the extensions was that the default was due to an unforeseen and unforeseeable mechanical failure, but the true reason that they were granted the extensions was the fact that they were still the only game in town...no one else had a practical airplane whose capabilities were even close to the Wright Flyer's. The army officially accepted the Wright Flyer on August 2, 1909, paying them a bonus of $5,000 because the Flyer managed a top speed of 42 MPH during the trials, for a total price of 30,000 dollars. The Wrights now had the distinction not only of building the first practical airplane...they also had the distinction of selling the U.S.Military the first of many, many aircraft to come. Technically making that single 42 MPH top speed biplane the great-great granddad of the SR-71, The F-14, F-15, F-16, and the soon to be in service F-22.

A quick note on the front mounted elevators ...the proper technical term for them is canards...used on the Wright Flyers as well as several other early aircraft. They actually work backwards in comparison the tail-mounted elevators that quickly became standard on aircraft.

The trailing (Rear) edge of tail mounted elevators swing in the direction that the pilot wants the nose to go.  On aircraft with conventional tail-mounted elevators for example, the pilot pushes forward on the stick, the elevator swings down,  the airflow hitting the elevator pushes the tail up, and the nose down, and the aircraft descends.

 But on the Flyer, and any other aircraft with canard elevators if the pilot wanted to climb, he wanted the trailing edge of the elevator to do the exact same thing…swing down. The airflow would hit the elevator, and push the elevators…and therefore the nose …upward. Looking at it from a profile, showing the airflow (Please excuse my…er…artwork!) shows how it worked.  

One thing that hasn’t changed in the century and change since the Wrights added a stick to control the elevators… whether it's a conventional stick, a control yoke (Wheel) or a high tech fly-by-wire side stick, the pilot still, to this day, pulls back to climb, pushes forward to descend.


Orville Wright wasn’t all that thrilled about having Thomas Selfridge flying with him. It wasn’t any personal animosity at all…it was the fact that Selfridge had been a member of the AEA, and was a competitor. When, before their flight, Selfridge offered to buy Orville Wright dinner, Wright remarked to a member of his team that Selfridge would probably use it as an opportunity to pump him for information about the Flyer.


While Alexander Graham Bell thought very highly of the Wrights...and they likewise of him...they were still rivals, and Bell wasted no time at all gaining access to the wrecked Flyer and examining it in detail, taking copious notes about it's construction and features. When I read that I couldn't help but think 'Like that would happen today!"  Just about a week ago, a pair of F-16s on a training exercise off of Chincoteague Island 'Touched Wings' as the media termed it, and one of the pilots successfully ejected to be rescued by the Coast Guard while the other managed to limp home and land his aircraft. The Air Force plans to recover the F-16 that went in the Atlantic. I have a feeling that a civilian would not have a whole lot of success if he showed up at Langley AFB's main gate  asking to examine the damaged jet!


Fort Myer has changed tremendously over the course of the last 105 years as you can imagine., but the Parade Ground, now named Summerall Field, and historic buildings surrounding it have remained basically unchanged. The crash site was actually off of the parade ground...Orville covered about a half mile in his attempts to get the Flyer under control before they crashed almost in the shadow if the Arlington National Cemetery's West Gate. The West Gate was renamed 'The Selfridge Gate', and is used only for funerals that take place at Memorial Chapel at Fort Myer.  See Picture below

I cropped a satellite image of Fort Myer, and added the crash site and the Flyer's possible flight path after the prop broke. Interestingly, as Orville tried to bring the Flyer back under control and get it on the ground in one piece, he flew either right over or very close to the Base Hospital where he'd spend several weeks recuperating. The Base Hospital was the large building on the southeast corner of the parade ground. Also interesting is the fact that the probable flight path is still over mostly open ground today as the area the crash occurred in is now occupied by one of Arlington National Cemetery's parking lots.


Huffman Prairie...the large field outside of Dayton, Ohio where the Wrights conducted all of their home-town flights...is often considered the worlds first airport. And an airport it still is today...or an air base, actually. It's within the boundaries of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base but has it's own entrance and is separated from the actual base by fencing. Huffman Prairie's operated by the National Park Service, and has reproductions of the hanger and catapult.


Sadly, Huffman Prairie also hosted a near reproduction of the crash that killed Thomas Selfridge. A fellow named Mark Duesenberry built a flying replica of the 1905 Wright Flyer that he was going to fly at Huffman Prairie during the commemoration of the 104th anniversary of the Wright's demonstration of the first practical airplane.

He was practicing for the flight on the morning of Oct 1st, 2009 and had made one successful flight already. On a subsequent flight, however, shortly after take-off the plane began an uncontrolled pitch oscillation, and impacted the ground at a nose down angle of about 45 degrees (Sound familiar?). Like Orville, Duesenberry wasn’t strapped in, and worse, his replica had the lying prone on the lower wing /hip cradle control system that the early Wright aircraft used. He slammed hard into the ground, pitched forward, and sadly suffered a severed spine, paralyzing him from the waist down. Luckily, like the crash that killed Thomas Selfridge, there was no fire. The big difference between 1908 and 2009 was, of course, the response to the crash and the on-scene medical care available today. 

Duesenberry's 1905 Wright Flyer replica ended up with almost the exact same damage as the 1908 Flyer model 'B' received in the fatal crash at Fort Myer
The damage to the 1908 Flyer, and Duesenberry's replica were all but identical. The hole in the top wing was made by the  Wright-Patterson Aircraft Crash/Fire/Rescue team to remove Duesnebarrry from the wreckage.
One very very eerie aspect of the crash was the post-crash attitude and damage to the aircraft. It was a very unwanted near exact replica of both the way the Fort Myer crash aircraft ended up after the crash and the damage it received.


Thomas Selfridge's crash was not the only time by far that Orville pranged one of the Flyers, just the only time that a fatality or serious injury was involved.. Over the course of the years they were testing and demonstrating the Flyers, and their gliders, he had nine, count 'em, nine major crashes.


Having spent three and a half decades as a fire/incident scene photographer, one thing that struck me as I researched this one was the number of photos… several of them good early-into-the-incident action shots at that…that existed of the crash scene. This is easily explained of course. First off, this was a major, very news-worthy event and the media was allowed pretty good access to it. The Army had a photographer there as well, and I’m pretty sure the majority of the pics I used for the article were taken by him.

 Also, by 1908, camera technology had come a long way from the huge, clunky old glass negative view cameras that required several seconds to create an image on a glass plate. Kodak had its brownie, which used 120 roll film, in mass production, but I have a feeling the long forgotten photographer who took the crash scene pics and investigative pics used something like the Seneca Competitor 5X7 format view camera…they took crisp, sharp pictures and had some pretty advanced features for the time, including a shutter adjustable up to an astonishing….for 1908…1/100th of a second shutter speed.  If it was a Seneca Competitor or similar sheet film camera, where separate plates holding a sheet of film had to be loaded for each shot, the photographer was definitely doing some hustling to get the shots he got…loading the beast was not a quick, simple process.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Selfridge Thomas Selfridge's Wikipedia page.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Myer Fort Myer's Wikipedia page

http://www.wright-brothers.org/General/Museum_Entrance/Museum_Entrance.htm The ultimate site for anything and everything Wright Brothers, their aircraft, and their company

http://www.check-six.com/Crash_Sites/Selfridge.htm Check Six.coms page on the Wright Flyer crash. Check Six is an awesome site for aviation enthusiasts, BTW, with information on a huge number of famous and not so famous crash sites and incidents from the past.

http://flightsafety.org/ap/ap_dec03.pdf A PDF file of a report on the Wright Flyer crash from The Flight Safety Foundation, written in the manner of an accident investigation report and including some history and tech details of the Flyers as well. Another awesome read, and better yet, downloadable!

http://www.wifcon.com/anal/analwright.htm The very interesting story of just how The Wright Brothers snagged the contract for the first ever military aircraft. Truly an awesome read.!

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