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The Wright Brothers’ Dreams of Flight Nearly Ended in Arlington

The crash site. Photograph via Library of Congress.

Along Arlington Boulevard, near Pershing Drive and across the street from a Days Inn, there is a historical marker. While inconspicuous, its written contents are not trivial. As stated on the marker, on September 17, 1908, at today’s Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, the Wright brothers’ dream of flight almost perished.

Five years earlier and a few hundred miles south, Wilbur and Orville Wright built and flew the first successful “aeroplane.” While memorialized as the world’s first powered airplane, the Wright Flyer traveled only 120 feet and stayed in the air for 12 seconds on its maiden voyage. The Wright brothers knew they had to do better if flight was ever going to become more than a novelty.

The Wrights continued to tinker with their innovation and spent the next two years trying to convince potential buyers that the Wright Flyer was the future. Their obsession with secrecy due to the paranoia that someone—or some government—was going to steal their designs didn’t help. The US military expressed interest (after initially saying it was not in the business of “financing experiments”), but the brothers refused to show its representatives the airplane, or even a picture, without a contract and a deposit. The military turned the brothers down, saying that it didn’t think a plane was practical. Discouraged, the Wright brothers did not fly an airplane again for two-and-a-half years.

While the Wrights sulked, airplane innovation continued around the world. In 1906, Dane J.C.H. Ellehammer’s single-wing aircraft made a series of tethered circular flights. That same year, Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont became the first person to pull off an observed flight in Europe and improved landing technique. In 1907, Paul Cornu of France flew the first helicopter (it only flew for 20 seconds and went one foot in the air).

The US Army finally realized the need for a military aircraft. So, two days before Christmas 1907, the Army called for proposals for a two-person, heavier-than-air flying machine. Coming out of self-imposed exile, the Wright brothers sent in a proposal and quickly won the contract. They were awarded $25,000 to build the machine, plus an extra 10 percent bonus for every mile per hour faster than 40 MPH they got the plane to go. The airplane was due in 200 days at Arlington’s Fort Myer.

They made the deadline—barely. In September 1908, Wilbur went to France to demonstrate their Flyer for another hopeful sale. Orville stayed behind, testing the next evolution of the Wright Flyer at Fort Myer. On September 3, the first flight of an American military aircraft occurred. It was also Orville Wright’s first public flight. Over the next few weeks, Orville continued to test the machine with increasingly ambitious flights. On September 9, he set three world records at Fort Myer—including the world’s longest flight (62 minutes) and the first public passenger flight. By mid-September, the Wrights were almost ready to hand over the plane to the Army.

Then came September 17.

It was a clear brisk Thursday at Fort Myer. Strong winds had grounded Orville Wright for two days, and he was determined to get in the air for one of the last test flights. The Army asked him to take Lt. Thomas Selfridge, a member of its review board, up with him.

Wright didn’t like Selfridge because he had also worked with a competitor, Alexander Graham Bell’s company Aerial Experiment Association. Orville once wrote to Wilbur about Selfridge, “I don’t trust him an inch. He plans to meet me often at dinner where he can pump me (for information).”

Wright and Selfridge before takeoff. Photograph via Library of Congress.

Orville and Selfridge climbed into the plane and took off. The first few minutes of the flight was uneventful. Orville showed off with a few climbing circles. Suddenly, there were two violent thumps—a blade on one of the wooden propellers had broken. Orville cut the engine, but the broken propeller caught the craft’s bracing wire. Unable to control the plane, Orville and Selfridge attempted to take cover as the plane nosedived into the ground.

It was a tragic mess. Orville was pulled out of the wreckage bleeding and unconscious—but alive. Selfridge, however, was buried underneath rubble, and much harder to get to. When Army personnel finally reached him, they found he had suffered a fractured skull. He died on the operating table a few hours later, the first passenger to die in an airplane crash.

Orville Wright’s injuries were severe: a fractured leg, broken ribs, lacerations and a back injury that would plague him the rest of his life. He would recover though, thanks in no small part to help from his sister Katharine. He was in the air again (against doctors’ orders) about a year later. As for the Army contract, the military was so impressed with the progress the brothers’ had made despite the crash that they allowed them to finish testing in June 1909.

Only nine months after crashing at Fort Myer, the Wrights–this time with Wilbur at the controls–fulfilled their requirements. They were also awarded a bonus of $5,000, thanks to the aircraft’s speed of 42.5 miles an hour.

Today, the Wright brothers (and sister) are legends, with their accomplishments being the storybook example of American perseverance and ingenuity. Their first airplane is part of the Smithsonian’s collection. Selfridge is buried at Arlington Cemetery, very close to the exact place he died.

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