Orville Wright Of Wright Brothers Fame Piloted The First Fatal Airplane Crash
Everyone knows that the Wright Brothers undertook the world’s first successful motorized airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903. What most people do not know is that five years later in 1908, Orville Wright was piloting a plane that crashed causing the first airplane fatality.
What even fewer people know is that the first fatality could easily have been President Theodore Roosevelt.
For several weeks beginning in September 1908, Orville Wright had been conducting test flights with the army at Fort Myer, a military post just outside of Washington D.C..
On September 14, it was reported that President Roosevelt had said he wanted to fly with Orville Wright on one of the upcoming test flights. Wright wisely demurred saying, “I have heard the report that President Roosevelt wants to ascend with me. I’m sorry, I don’t think the President of the United States should take such chances. Of course, flying in the air is as safe as riding in a streetcar, but there are accidents that might happen. Aside from my relatives, such an accident to me would mean nothing, but the Nation would be the sufferer if the President was injured or killed.”
Those who knew President Roosevelt said he would insist on flying with Wright when he returned to Washington D.C. from Oyster Bay, NY the following week. Fate would intervene in the President’s plans to fly with Wright.
Three days later on September 17, 1908 Orville Wright was at the controls flying with pilot Lt. Thomas Selfridge, who was Secretary of the Aerial Experiment Association. With 2,000 onlookers, the two took off at 5:14 pm and about four minutes into the flight one of the two wooden propellers split and Wright shut down the engine. But it was too late. Traveling at about 40 mph and at a height of about 70 feet, the airplane made a quick ten foot rise, before slamming straight into the ground with terrific force.
Lieutenant Selfridge was knocked unconscious and covered with blood and had to be extricated from the under the plane’s engine and fuel tank which had fallen on top of him. Wright was bleeding and had suffered a broken left thigh and several broken ribs but was conscious for a short time before passing out. Both men were transported to the hospital.
Selfridge never regained consciousness and died from a fractured skull and internal injuries at 8:10 p.m. that evening, becoming the world’s first airplane fatality. Wright would recover from his injuries after several weeks.
On October 11, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt though no longer in office, did indeed become the first President to fly in an airplane at Kinloch, MO, when he accompanied a pilot named Arch Hoxsey who worked for the Wright Brothers, on a short flight.
When the three and a half minute airplane ride was over Roosevelt said, “It was great! First class! It was the finest experience I have ever had, I wish I could stay up for an hour, but I haven’t the time this afternoon.”
Roosevelt was very fortunate. Arch Hoxsey would be killed in Los Angeles CA, just a little over two months later on December 31, 1910, when his airplane crashed from a height of 7,000 feet.