P.B.A., I’m quite aware of all archived recorded military, etc., documents concerning the tragic event in question, used by historians a score of times. The below was extracted from professor Alec G. Bell’s papers providing A.E.A.’s perspective, consisting of letters, telegrams sent, received, and press despatches timeline of the day as fallows:—
CURTISS TO BELL. (About Orville Wright’s Machine). Hammondsport, N.Y., Sept. 7, 1908:— I have been down to Washington for two days, called there by a message from Gen. Allen. I was lucky enough to arrive just in time to see the Wrights’ flights, Thursday and Friday. The first flight was rather short as Mr. Wright said he was unaccustomed to the machine, and the levers seemed awkward for him. He made a wrong move and headed for the tent, which necessitated immediate landing; in this landing, with the machine tilted somewhat, one rudder struck first causing the machine to swing around sideways and broke the rudder off. The next day he did better, however, and made as fine a landing as you would make on wheels. The launching device, which includes a derrick, and a big weight which drops the pulleys and rope to give the initial velocity, does not seem to be very well liked, and I believe that all who have seen our machine and the Wrights’ prefer our method of starting on wheels to skids. I had some talk with Mr. Wright and nothing was said about his patents on adjustable surfaces. He has nothing startling about his machine and no secrets.
The surfaces have a plain curve; that is, they appear like a segment of a circle. The front longitudinal strips are very heavy and flat, and no attempt is made anywhere on the machine to reduce resistance by any improved form of body. The struts are nearly square, with the corners slightly rounded off. The front control has a new action: The ribs are flexible and bend. I cannot see there is any advantage in the movement, however. The propellers are also odd: They are very flat at the hub, presenting great resistance as they revolve. The blades are wider towards the ends, perhaps three times the width at the hub, and there is a curve to each blade as follows:—
The two propellers are about nine feet in diameter, and are driven in opposite directions by crossing one chain. This is accomplished by running the chain through a steel tube, the slack side going out around the one which does the pulling. The engine is the same they had four years ago, being rather crude and not exceptionally light. Mr. Wright sits to the left of the engine just inside of the front surface on a little cushioned seat, which is large enough for two. Mr. Wright told me they intended to use but one propeller hereafter, presumably to simplify. This double-chain transmission they have weighs 100 lbs. more than the single propeller would.
Selfridge has been ordered to St. Joseph, Mo. to fly the Government airship at the coming manoeuvres. After that he will probably fly the Wrights’ machine. Mr. and Mrs. Fairchild were out to the flight, and I had a nice visit with them. I enclose a brief description of what we have been doing here since the last report. G. H. Curtiss.
Letter: Curtiss to Mrs. Bell Hammondsport, N.Y., Sept. 9, 1908:— One of the Wrights made a flight each day, the first and only two they have made so far. The first day’s flight was marred by a bad landing which broke one of the skids. The second was better lasting for over four minutes. It is plain to see that they have nothing new, or better than we. I wrote Mr. Bell describing the machine………G. H. Curtiss.
*To A. G. Bell, Baddeck, N.S. Washington, D.C., Sept. 17, 1908:— Wright aeroplane wrecked to-day. Propeller broken; fell over one hundred feet. Selfridge seriously injured. Wright’s leg broken. Charles Bell.
*To A. G. Bell, Baddeck, N.S. Washington, D.C., Sept. 17, 1908:— Poor Tom died to-night of brain injury in wrecked aeroplane. A new propeller broke. Wright stopped engine, but aeroplane pitched forward and dove 50 feet. Wright broke thigh and two ribs. He will recover. Machine completely wrecked. David Fairchild.
*To A. G. Bell, Baddeck, N.S. New York, N.Y., Sept. 18, 1908:— Please accept deepest sympathy in loss by Association of Selfridge. E. L. Jones.
*To A. G. Bell, Baddeck, N.S. Hammondsport, N.Y., Sept. 18, 1908:— Selfridge died eight P.M. last night. G. H. Curtiss.
*To Curtiss and McCurdy, Hammondsport, N.Y. Grand Narrows, N.S., Sept. 18, 1908:— Let us have a meeting of the Association in Washington as soon as we can all reach there. Too stunned to say more at present. Graham Bell.
*To Prof. Bell, Baddeck, N.S. Sydney, N.S., Sept. 18, 1908:— Can you send briefly particulars and statement regarding death of Lieut. Selfridge at Washington. Sydney Record.
To Editor Sydney Record, Sydney, N.S. Baddeck, N.S., Sept. 18, 1908:— Dr. Bell and Mr. Baldwin have left to attend funeral. Telegrams received state a new propeller broke. Wright stopped engine but aeroplane pitched forward and dove fifty feet. Selfridge died eight P.M. from brain injury. Wright broke thigh and two ribs, but will recover Although Selfridge was only twenty-seven he had already distinguished himself commanding United States Marines in San Francisco earthquake; ascended in Dr. Bell’s man-carrying kite “Cygnet”, a feat never before performed. The White Wing, the first A.E.A. aerodrome was built under his direction and flew successfully. His loss great misfortune to A.E.A., and aeronautics generally. Mrs. A. Graham Bell.
US Army Signal Corps Lieut. Thomas E. Selfridge, 17th September 1908, at eight p.m., died of brain injury while in an aeroplane crash, known as the first aviation fatal casualty. The flying machine, aka Flyer piloted by Orville Wright, was seriously injured at Fort Meyer, Washington. A.E.A. members were aware of Orville & Wilbur Wright achievements, for several years at Kitty Hawk North Carolina. The Wright’s aeronautic endeavours were of no influence, nor contributed too AEA aeronautic innovations, McCurdy’s anecdote: “In spite of Bell’s good-hearted attempts too share our findings with the Wrights; we never succeeded in having the slightest communication with them.Whatever we accomplished was strictly our own.” Bell personally aware of Lieut. Thomas F. Selfridge knowledge in aviation, requested his services from President Theodore Roosevelt, pulling strings, the Army Signal Corps assigned him to AEA for one year. A close bond materialised between AEA team members and Selfridge, all working, contributing too each others designed and manufactured experimental aerodromes, Bell the father figure call them, “his boys.” Year passed, US Army reassigned Selfridge to the committee overseeing the development of the Wrights flyer, in compliance with the Signal Corps performance contract. Owing Selfridge was a former AEA member prompting Orville in voicing disapproval on the assignment. When Bell got wind Selfridge died in the plane crash piloted by Orville at Fort Myer in 1908, filled with overwhelming grief, went silent even throughout the funeral refusing press interviews. Accompanied by F.W. “Casey” Baldwin, Selfridge buried in Washington, Bell critical: “Wright System Wrong Principle, declaring both propellers should be on one shaft.”
Telegram: To Mrs. G. Bell, Baddeck, N.S. Washington, D.C., Sept. 18, 1908:— We were not there, but Uncle Charlie, Cousin Grace, Mr. Lathrop were. Tom’s parents coming; funeral on their arrival. Wright improving. German Emperor cabled sympathy to Selfridge’s. Have wired Charles. Tom unconscious from first. Real cause of accident still obscure. David Fairchild.
Letter: To Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, President Am. Aerial Experimental Ass., On Train, “Sydney Flier” No. 86, New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. New Glasgow, N.S., Sept. 18, 1908:— Feeling as we do after our visit of yesterday to Beinn Bhreagh, a new and special interest in the problem of Aerial Navigation, and your experiments in that direction, and results so far obtained, we desire to convey on behalf of the Nova Scotia and Canadian Press Association our deep sympathy in the loss of your friend and co-worker, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, Secretary of your Association whose life was sacrificed yesterday in the cause of aerial science. At the same time we wish to express our appreciation of your thoughtful courtesy in showing us so much during our short visit. On behalf of the Nova Scotia, and Canadian Press Associations:—
- Fred E. Cox, Member Executor, Nova Scotia Press Ass.
- C. M. Young, Member Executor, Canadian Press Ass.
Despatch Halifax, N.S. Sept., 19.— “Dr. Alexander Graham Bell is now on is way to Washington to attend an emergency meeting of the Arial Experiment association Sunday, immediately o his arrival there, and also to attend the funeral of Lieutenant Selfridge. Dr. Bell was at Truro yesterday. The savant felt the shock of Lieutenant Selfridge’s death greatly and was so overcome he could hardly talk about it. Lieutenant Selfridge’s death makes no deference in the plans of the Arial Experiment association, either at Hammondssport or Baddeck, he said………..Arial Experiment association recent discussed the danger of such an apparatus as that used by Wright on the machine that fatal to Lieutenant Selfridge, said Dr. Bell, and had concluded that the duplicate shafts employed on it were wrong in principle, that two propellers on the same shaft constituted the proper idea. Had the Wright machine had its propellers on one shaft, the accident could not have happened. In case one of the propellers broke the other would carry it forward at greatly reduced speed. Wit Wright the remaining propeller swerved the machine suddenly around. Dr. Bell paid tribute to Lieutenant Selfridge’s profound knowledge of aeronautics which he thought was more complete than that of any other-man in America. F.W. Baldwin accompanied Dr. Bell to Washington and both will return immediately to Cape Breton.”
Washington Post Sept. 20, 1908:— Telegraphic advices received at the War Department yesterday announced that Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, the aeronautical expert, with whom Lieut. Selfridge had been associated, was on his way to this city from Halifax, to attend the funeral. He is expected to arrive here to-day. Dr. Bell sent the following telegram to the father of Lieut. Selfridge on learning of the young man’s death:— “The Aerial Experiment Association wants you to know that your son, Tom, its Secretary, will be missed by the Association and its individual members, as your son is missed from the family circle. Dr. Bell, in an interview, paid a tribute to the memory of Lieut. Selfridge, who, he said, was one of the most thorough aeronautical experts in this country. He criticised the construction of the Wright machine, declaring the two propellers should be operated by one shaft, instead of by two, and that had this form of power transmission been used the accident would not have occurred. Dr. Bell further said that the experiments of the Association, of which he is President, will be continued, and that there will be important tests made at Hammondsport during the middle of October, when flying machines Nos. 5 and 6, now being built on the tetrahedral design will be used in ascents. Washington Post.
Washington Post, Sept. 20, 1908:— (Paris, Sept. 19). The Revue d’Aviation to-day publishes a series of expert opinions concerning the work of various French and foreign aeroplanists. The writers unanimously admit the present superiority of the Wright Brothers, principally on account of the double propellers, but they agree that the Wright machine is too cumbersome and large. They insist that the machine of the future must, in the first place, leave the ground making use of its own power alone, and second, be automatically stable, thus permitting anyone who can ride a bicycle or drive an automobile to handle it. Washington Post.
Washington Evening Star, Sept. 21, 1908:— Tribute was paid to the memory of Lieut. Selfridge at a meeting of the American Aerial Experiment Association held at the residence of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell to-day. All the remaining members of the Association were present. These included Dr. Bell, the President of the Association; Glenn H. Curtiss, F. W. Baldwin and J.A.D. McCurdy. Mr. McCurdy was elected Secretary of the Association in place of Lieut. Selfridge. Resolutions of regret were passed touching the death of Lieut. Selfridge. Resolutions of sympathy were drafted to be forwarded to Orville Wright. The Selfridge resolution said that the Association wished to place on record its high appreciation of its last Secretary, who met his death in his effort to advance the art of aviation. The Association lamented the death of its dear friend and valued associate. The United States Army, it said, loses a valued and promising officer, and the world an ardent student of aviation, who made himself familiar with the whole progress of the art of the art in the interest of his native country. It was resolved that a committee be appointed by the Chairman to prepare a biography of Lieut. Selfridge to be incorporated into the records of the Association, and that a copy should be transmitted to his parents. The resolutions to Wright extended to him the deepest sympathy for his grief at the death of their associate, Lieut. Selfridge. The Association said they realized that in this pioneering of the air, the unforeseen must sometime occur. They hoped, however, that
Wright might soon recover from his severe injury and continue, in conjunction with his brother, Wilbur Wright, his splendid demonstration to the world of the great possibilities of aerial flight. Luncheon was afterward served to the members of the Association, who were joined by Maj. Squier, the acting Chief Signal Officer…Washington Evening Star.
TO THE ASSOCIATES. This Bulletin, issued in your absence, must not go without a few words of that which is filling all our hearts at this time. On Thursday, September 17, the beautiful bond of companionship which we called “The Aerial Experiment Association” was broken, when Tom Selfridge sealed his devotion to our common cause with his life. To-day in Washington the last military honors are being paid to him, as an officer who died in his country’s service, and all over the world true hearts are sorrowing for the brave young life so suddenly cut down in its brilliant beginning, (Mrs. Grosvenor reports the fishermen in all the little St. Anne’s hamlets are talking of nothing else). They say Tom was happy, absolutely jubilant, and his was a glorious soldier’s death, fame and honor are his, His name will be linked with aviation for all time. But — but we who knew him as he was, knew how much of achievement he had to give his country, and the world, how well fitted to live — what a friend, comrade, son and brother, true man and loving heart he was, find it hard to accept even this as best for him. Others will place on record what Lieutenant Selfridge was as patriotic soldier, earnest worker in the struggle to win for mankind the highway of the air — will tell of his years of preparation and of what he was given opportunity to accomplish — to the Mother of the Association it may be permitted to speak of him as he was in the family.
When it was proposed to bring this strange young artillery officer into the family, enquiries were made concerning him. Most unfortunately the reply was not kept; but it said, “He is a chivalrous gentleman fond of such society as comes in his way”. We found the report correct. He was one of the most loveable boys I have ever known, good, true, gentle and affectionate. From the first day when, on my home-coming a year ago, he met me with friendly eyes and welcoming smile, to the last, when he bade us good-bye at the train in Bath, N.Y., he showed me the gentlest, most thoughtful consideration. None more quick than he to see what was wanted for my comfort or pleasure. He always found something to do, a chair to be placed at table, lights to be put right;— little unobtrusive acts of thoughtfulness which, almost unnoticed at the time, were later missed. The same quiet kindliness characterized his bearing to every other woman he came into contact with, so that to-day they cannot speak of him without tears. He so identified himslef with everything that we each felt that our interests 4 were also his. He was so quiet it seems strange how large the place is he has left vacant. In his favorite khaki flannel shirt and old corduroy trousers, which had seen good service, and running about bareheaded, Tom was so simple and remote from display that at first it comes with almost a shock to think of him in connection with the pomp and circumstance of the military funeral he is receiving. On second thought, however, one realizes that such things meant much to him as part of the profession he loved, and that he was always conscious of his right to them. Tom had a high sense of responsibility, it showed amusingly in his relation to his young twin brothers, in the little airs of elder brotherliness he assumed, and yet it was most beautiful. His father had left them to his care and their development into good men, morally, mentally and physically was a matter of anxious concern.
He was immensely pleased when they were invited to Beinn Bhreagh, and devoted himself to taking them about showing them everything and trying to improve their minds by making them observe the construction of the Tower, and watch the experiments at the Laboratory. Later we heard of his making trips to their school to pull them out of scraps, or to see they were properly cared for through illness. The same sense of responsibility cropped out every now and then in conversation, about the condition of our military forces, and in the discussion of ways of rendering them more efficient. Ones abiding impression of him was of gentleness and stillness in rest — coupled with a sense of his under-laying strength and immoveable determination. He was full of quiet fun and good humour, and I never saw him out of temper, although he did chafe occasionally at what he thought the Chairman’s unnecessary caution in allowing flights. He took in amused good part the being unceremoniously bundled out of his room, as was sometimes unavoidable in unusual press of visitors. He asked nothing for himself; one felt he had long been accustomed to take care of himself, as well as of others, but whenever any little thing was done for his comfort or pleasure he noticed it at once and was pleased and grateful far beyond what was necessary. One evening, towards the end, I came down stairs to find him waiting at the foot. He had pulled up a big armchair, arranged lamps behind so the light should be right. Placing me in it he knelt beside me and made a little speech undeterred, although somewhat interrupted by injections of “Be quiet boys”, as the others chaffed him. He said he wanted to thank us for all we had done to make him so happy, and especially he wanted us to know how much he appreciated being allowed to be the one to go up in the Cygnet, and how very grateful he was for that honor.
Indeed his appreciation of people’s kindness to him was unusual and charming. He was outspoken, never fearing to say just what he thought, but he never said unkind things of people — rather he constantly went out of his way to speak kindly of them. Anything he could do to help people he did. He was ready always — for work — or for play. He had a good time when there were parties here or across the water, but seemed perfectly content to sit quietly by the fire with his book or to listen with the slow pleasant smile that was one of his characteristics, while others talked or chaffed. Nothing escaped those bright brown eyes of his. He loved music and frequently set the graphophone going and remained alone in the dark dinning room contently listening. He was genuinely fond of the children and often found his way alone to their nursery. It was a good time that last year. I think none of us will forget it or cease to be glad of it. We will not forget the early summer fencing on the front veranda when Casey came down from his day’s work on the Tower, and Tom and John from the Laboratory, the coming of the Wild Cat, the afternoon teas with the babies beside the big warm fireplace when the Associates came in cold and wet, and there were romps with little Mabel afterwards, the nightly games of billiards etc., or the Wednesday evenings of stories and songs, rifle shooting and banquets; or the home-comings after stormy weather on the Gauldrie. It is good to think we had that year all together — that he was happy with us and loved us all even as we loved him. And now we are all going forward with our lives — thankful for having known him; thankful for the dear memory he has left us of stainless, noble mankind, and his death will have but cemented the bond between us who are left. Beinn Bhreagh, September 26, 1908.
Minutes by J. A. D. McCurdy, from September 21, 1908, to September 26, 1908: A meeting was held on Sept. 20, 21 st 1908, by order of the Chairman, at 1331 Conn. Ave., Washington, D. C. at 10 A. M. Present, A. G. Bell, G. H. Curtiss, F. W. Baldwin and J. A. D. McCurdy. Owing to the death of Lieut. Thomas E. Selfridge, J. A. D. McCurdy was elected Secretary as his successor, that the Aerial Experiment Association place on record our high appreciation of our late Secretary. Lieut. Thomas E. Selfridge, who met death in his efforts to advance the art of aviation. The Association laments the loss of a dear friend and valued associate; the United States Army loses a valuable and prominent army officer, and the world an ardent student of aviation who made himself familiar with the whole progress of the art in the interests of his native country.
- RESOLVED, that the members of the A. E. A. herewith extend to Mr. Orville Wright their deepest sympathy for his grief at the death of their associate, Lieut. Selfridge. We realize that in this pioneering of the air the unforeseen must occasionally be disastrous. We hope sincerely that Mr. Wright will soon recover from the serious injuries he has sustained and continue, in conjunction with his brother Mr. Wilbur Wright, the splendid demonstration to the world of the great possibilities of aerial flight.
On Sept. 26th, 1908, a meeting of the Association was held by order of the Chairman reviewed the conditions which led to the formation of the Association, its work during the past year and the probable plans for the Association in the future. Also read an extract from a letter to him from Mrs. Bell in which she expressed so beautifully the place our late Secretary held in her heart. Mr. Bell requested that a copy of this extract be prepared by the Secretary and transmitted to Mrs. Selfridge. Bell reminded members that the Association would come to an end on Sept. 30th, 1908, unless, as stipulated by our Constitution, a unanimous vote of the members was obtained which would decide otherwise. He also pointed out that we might have inventions which if of — a patentable nature would have some commercial value and, if so, the interests of the late Lieut. Selfridge would have to be considered in a legal fashion. Mr. Bell also stated that he had been authorized by Mrs. Bell to say that she would be willing to donate money as wanted by the Association to the limit of $10,000 more to allow the experiments to be carried on for another period of six months. The following resolution was put and unanimously carried:—
- RESOLVED:—that that the Aerial Experiment Association be continued under its present organization for another period of six months, ending March 31, 09.
To Mrs. Alexander G. Bell, Baddeck, N.S. Washington, Sept. 26, 1908:— Selfridge at rest. Impressive military funeral yesterday. Selfridge’s father present. At Association’s meeting decided to continue without change for six months. Alec.
Letters . (Extract from letter to Mrs. Bell by A. G. Bell). Washington, D.C., Sept. 22, 1908:— We reached here Sunday afternoon. Monday, Sept. 21, we held a formal meeting of the Association, appointed Douglas McCurdy as Secretary, and passed resolution of appreciation of Selfridge, and resolution of sympathy for Orville Wright, who is lying at the military hospital at Fort Meyer suffering from very serious injuries. Newspaper reporters from a number of papers were on hand to know what the Association was doing. Major Squier took lunch with us, also Mrs. Fairchild, Curtiss, Baldwin and McCurdy. Cause of accident. Rudder wire caught in one of the propellers. Wire snapped and propeller broke. Under action of other propeller machine swung round in air. Wright then shut off engine and attempted to glide to ground, but the snapping of the rudder wire rendered the steering gear useless, and the machine began to fall without any means of controlling it excepting the front control. In his excitement Wright evidently raised the front control too much, or too quickly, causing head to rise with danger of sliding backwards, and this caused machine to lose its headway. Under these circumstances all control was lost, the weight of two men and the engine, all at the front part of machine, caused the head to point almost vertically downwards, and the machine dived towards the ground. Under the headway gained by the dive he might have regained control had he been further from the ground, and indeed it appeared that the machine was beginning to right, but there was not 13 room enough for a clearance of the ground. If he had had 15 or 20 feet more space for a drop there is little doubt that the disaster would have been only “an experience” as one of the papers puts it. As it was, the machine struck the ground with the full force of its fall, and all was over.
The fatal catastrophe was undoubtedly due to loss of headway. Tuesday Sept. 22. This morning went out to Fort Meyer with Baldwin and McCurdy (Mr. Curtiss returned to Hammondsport yesterday and will return for the funeral when date is fixed). Called at the hospital and enquired for Orville Wright, who is too ill to receive visitors. We left our cards for him. He is doing as well as could be expected. We then went to the building where the remains of the machine are housed and inspected the remains so far as accessible. I was sorry not to be able to see the broken propeller, as the propellers were boxed up ready for shipment to Dayton, Ohio. Sergeant Dowley received us very courtiously and showed us some splendid photographs of the apparatus. We then went to the Arlington Cemetery to the Receiving Vault where poor Selfridge’s remains lie awaiting interment. Then returned to Sergeant Dowley’s tent to copy some details concerning various flights made by Orville Wright. Found Mr. Chanute there. He told us that Miss Wright was asleep having been up all night with her brother. Mr. Chanute returned to town with us and took lunch, and spent the whole afternoon with us. At lunch we had David Fairchild, Mr. Chanute, Mr. Baldwin, Mr. McCurdy, Mr. Cloudy (photographer for the N.Y. Herald), Mr. Clime (photographer for the Agricultural 14 Dept) and A. G. B.
Telegraph reply: Mr. Clowdy and Mr. Clime showed us the photographs they had taken of the flights. They will supply the A.E.A. with a complete file of their photographs, and the Association will invite the public to send in photographs for preservation, so that the A.E.A. may make a historical exhibit of the historical flights of Orville Wright for permanent preservation. We propose to turn over the whole collection to the National Museum. A letter has just arrived from the Acting President of the Aero Club appointing me the Chairman of a committee to represent the Aero Club at the funeral of Selfridge. I have thought it best to decline and have sent the following telegram to Mr. Hawley:— “With your permission I will ask Chanute to act as Chairman of Committee representing Aero-Club at funeral of Selfridge, as I will appear as Chairman of Aerial Experiment Association of which Selfridge was Secretary.. A.G.B.