Remembering our namesake

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Public Affairs
Despite the fact that he apparently never set foot in southeastern Michigan, one man's name has long been at the forefront of military aviation in the state: Thomas Selfridge.

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, the first military person ever to die in an aircraft accident during a flight, was killed after a crash landing Sept. 17, 1908, while flying with Orville Wright. Ironically, the men were flying just a few hundred yards away from Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where Selfridge would later be buried with full military honors.

In 1917, the Army leased (and would eventually purchase) Joy Aviation Field in Harrison Township and renamed it in Selfridge's honor. Initially, the base was used to train pilots in the run-up to American involvement to World War I. Over the years, the base's name has changed to reflect its changing mission from Selfridge Field to Selfridge Air Force Base in 1947 to Selfridge Air National Guard Base in 1971.

Selfridge, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1903 as part of the same class that produced future Gen. Douglas MacArthur, came from a family steeped in American military tradition. Selfridge's grandfather and an uncle, Thomas O. Selfridge Sr. and Jr., both served more than 40 years in the U.S. Navy, both saw combat action with the Union Navy during the Civil War and both men retired as admirals. The Navy named two different destroyers after the men, the second of which saw extensive action in World War II.
Selfridge's older brother, Edward Selfridge, served as a captain in the infantry and fought in the Battle of San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War and is also buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Selfridge, who was 26 when he died, was initially assigned to the infantry, but grew fascinated with aviation after reading about some work that Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, the same man who invented the telephone, was doing with kites in Nova Scotia in Canada. Eventually assigned by President Theodore Roosevelt as an observer to the Bell experiments, in 1907, Selfridge would take his first flight. Strapped into the center of a giant kite created by Bell, Selfridge made his first flight on Dec. 6 of that year, rising to 168 feet as the kite was pulled by a tugboat on Lake Bras d'Or.

The following summer, Selfridge was one of three Army officers to be trained to fly Army Dirigible Number One and his enthusiasm and advocacy for military air power was continuing to grow. Arguing that the Army needed to purchase its own airplanes, Selfridge was assigned to a small team to test out the Wright Flyers being made by Orville and Wilbur Wright, the famed brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who had made the world's first controlled, powered and sustained airplane flight on Dec. 17, 1903.

In a demonstration for the Army (the separate Air Force would not be created until 1947), Orville Wright brought a Wright Flyer to Fort Meyer, Va., for a series of flights. After several days of observing Wright fly his aircraft, for up to an hour at a time, Lt. Selfridge convinced Wright to take him aloft as a passenger on one of the flights. Selfridge had to leave the next morning on other Army business.

The flight with Wright was to be Selfridge's last.

"The accident was witnessed by a throng of upwards of 2,500 persons, who were instantly changed from cheering enthusiasts to saddened and depressed sympathizers," the Washington Post reported the next day.

"The accident was caused by the breaking of one of the propeller blades. It occurred as the machine was making the second turn, at the lower end of the field, on the fourth lap.

"An end of the blade flew off, and Mr. Wright apparently completely lost control of the machine, which tacked about choppily for a hundred feet or more, soared ten feet higher, and then dropped to the ground with a frightful force, from a height of about 75 feet.

"The machine crumpled up into a tangled mass of wreckage, burying the two men. The horrified spectators dashed down the field, and those in the van lifted the machine and extricated the victims. Mr. Wright was conscious. Lieutenant Selfridge was unconscious, and his face was covered with blood, which gushed from a great gash on his forehead."

Selfridge died at the scene. Wright was hospitalized for several weeks but made a full recovery and eventually sold his airplane to the Army.

The Washington Post goes on to report that Selfridge was "one of the most enthusiastic and experience aviators" in the military at the time of his death.

To mark the centennial of Selfridge's death, Lou Nigro, director of the
Selfridge Air Museum at the local base, has created a presentation on the early aviator's life that is suitable for service clubs, libraries or other interested groups.

"Selfridge's legacy lives on here at the base that bears his name," Nigro said. "This base has a more than 90-year history of aviation excellence and service to the nation through the use of air power. I think Thomas Selfridge would be proud of how his name endures to this day."

For information on the Selfridge presentation, contact the Selfridge Air Museum at (586) 239-5035 or visit