Military Figure. He is remembered as the first person to die in the crash of a powered airplane. Born in San Francisco, California, he was selected to attend the US Military Academy at West Point, New York and graduated in 1903 with a commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the Field Artillery. In 1906 he was stationed to the Presidio at San Francisco during the great earthquake on April 18, and participated in the search and rescue efforts as well as the clean-up. In 1907 he was assigned to the Aeronautical Division, US Signal Corps at Fort Myer, Virginia where he was one of three pilots trained to fly the Army Dirigible Number One, purchased in July 1908. He also served as the US government's representative to the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), which was chaired by Alexander Graham Bell, and became its first secretary. On December 6, 1907 he took his first flight on Alexander Graham Bell's tetrahedral kite, the Cygnet, that took him 168 feet in the air above Bras d'Or Lake in Nova Scotia, Canada, and flew for 7 minutes. He designed Red Wing, the AEA's first powered aircraft and on March 12, 1908, piloted by Frederick W. Baldwin, it raced over the frozen surface of Keuka Lake near Hammondsport, New York, on runners and actually flew over 300 feet before crashing. On May 19, 1908, as a 1st lieutenant, he became the first US military officer to pilot a modern aircraft when he took to the air alone in AEA's newest craft, White Wing, traveling 100 feet on his first attempt and 200 feet on his second. Between May and August of that year, he made a number of flights at Hammondsport, culminating in a flight of one minute and thirty seconds at 75 feet. The next day his final solo flight of fifty seconds went 800 yards. In September 1908 he traveled to Fort Myer, Virginia for aviation pioneer Orville Wright's demonstration of his Wright Flyer aircraft that the US Army has tentatively agreed to purchase for their Signal Corps division. He arranged to be a passenger while Orville Wright piloted the aircraft. On September 17, 1908, the aircraft circled Fort Myer 4 and one-half times at 150 feet. Halfway through the fifth circuit, the right propeller broke, causing it to lose thrust. As a result, the aircraft went into a nose dive and crashed. Selfridge was not wearing any type of headgear and his skull was fractured and Wright sustained severe injuries, including a broken thigh, several broken ribs, and a damaged hip. He underwent neurosurgery but died that evening at the age of 26, without regaining consciousness. As a result of his death, the US Army's first pilots were required to wear large heavy headgear reminiscent of early football helmets. While he was interred in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, he is memorialized by a large cenotaph in Section XXXIV of West Point Cemetery, on the grounds of the US Military Academy. Selfridge Air National Guard Base (formerly Selfridge Air Force Base), located in Mount Clemens, Michigan, is named in his honor.
Bio by: William Bjornstad