Glen Curtiss
Alexander Graham Bell
Fort Meyer Trials
Louis Blériot
Reims air race
the first U.S. airshows
Santos Dumont
squaring up for war
the first bomb run
the amazing Dreadnought 1

triumph and tragedy at Fort Myer

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Fort Myer Trial

The trials began on September 3 in an atmosphere of suspicion and acrimony. Orville put the Model A through its paces and it performed beautifully, soaring, banking, and turning sharply and seemingly effortlessly in the air. (The Wrights had prepared for both the U.S. and the French exhibitions by practicing their flying at Kitty Hawk earlier in the summer.) Orville made four flights of more than one hour each and took up a passenger on three of the flights (both had been conditions set forth by the government for any plane it would consider purchasing). There was simply no question in the Army’s mind (or in Curtiss’ or Selfridge’s) that the Wright Model A represented the cutting edge of flying machines.

Curtiss and the AEA testing their aircraft in Hammondsport

On September 17, Orville planned one more test, this one with Selfridge aboard. Hoping to impress Selfridge with additional speed (or possibly because Selfridge himself was heftier than the other passengers he had taken up), Orville replaced the original propellers with longer ones. Selfridge climbed aboard and sat in the cushioned seat (aviators did not yet wear seatbelts) and looked forward to an exciting flight. The airplane circled the field three times at an altitude of about 150 feet (45.5m). On the fourth lap, one of the propellers cracked along its length. The difference in thrust between the two propellers created a vibration that loosened the shaft of the other propeller, which spun wildly and soon cut a wire that controlled the rudder. At that point, Orville lost control of the plane and it headed to the ground nose first.

Fort Myer trials on September 17, 1908. Aboard as passenger (to Orville’s right) is Curtiss colleague and AEA associate llieutenant Thomas Selfridge. Wright had replaced the propellers with slightly larger ones
to accommodate Selfridge’s greater weight. Selfridge seems serious, even a bit grim.

The plane crashed and raised a cloud of dust that made it difficult for the first rescuers on the scene to find either Orville or Selfridge. The first to spot the aviators as the smoke cleared was W.S. Clime, a photographer. Orville was hanging from the plane’s mangled wires; Selfridge had struck the ground and lay motionless.

In representations of the accident (such as in Gallieni’s painting) Selfridge is often depicted falling out of the Model A, while in fact he stayed with the craft and was injured, along with Orville, in the crash.

Orville left the field conscious, recuperated in a hospital, and returned to Dayton in a wheelchair six weeks later. He eventually recovered and with typical Wright grit, he forced himself to walk without a limp, though his hip and leg bothered him the rest of his life. But Selfridge was declared dead the next day and became the first casualty of the age of flight (and the fourth to die in pursuit of the dream of flight). News of both Orville’s triumph and the tragedy of Selfridge’s death spread throughout the world and moved even the most intrepid flyers.


The trials were called off (mainly because of Orville’s injury), but it was clear that the Army was going to buy the Wright planes. When the Wrights founded their flying school in Montgomery, Alabama, and in Pau, France, their announced reason for doing so was to enable them to enter their own planes, flown by their own pilots, in competitions, but in reality they created these schools because they were aware that the planes they would be selling to governments would require trained pilots and instructors.

The trials were not resumed until July 27, 1909, when Orville again put the Model A through its paces. This time, President Taft was among the spectators and Lieutenant Frank Lahm, Commander of the Army Signal Corps, rode as a passenger—and neither would have occurred had there been any doubt about the success of the trial. The army bought one plane, but there were clear indications that others would be ordered later. The amount paid was thirty thousand dollars, five thousand of which was a bonus for exceeding the speed requirements.