100 years after his death, aviator inspires exhibit

Charles E. Ramirez / The Detroit News

HARRISON TOWNSHIP — He was the first soldier to die in a powered-aircraft crash in world history. And Wednesday marks the 100th anniversary of his death.

The name is familiar to most in Macomb County, home to the military installation that derives its name from the soldier: the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township.

To commemorate the milestone anniversary of the death of Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, the resident historian at the base has put together a traveling program that examines the life and death of the aviator.

“It’s perfect for service clubs and libraries or other organizations looking for historical programs,” said Lt. Col. Louis Nigro, executive director of the Selfridge Military Air Museum.

Nigro will make his first public presentation of the program Sept. 23 at the Mount Clemens Public Library.

The fascination with flying for U.S. Army 1st Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge started when he was a cadet at West Point, Nigro said. Selfridge, a San Francisco native, was one of a few who flew giant box kites designed and built by Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, in 1907. He was also one of three military officers trained to pilot the Army Signal Corps’ first blimp.

Selfridge was later assigned to a team assembled to test the Wright Flyer — an aircraft built by Orville and Wilbur Wright, the brothers who made the world’s first controlled, powered airplane flight Dec. 17, 1903.

In 1908, after several days of watching the aircraft in action at Fort Meyer, Va., Selfridge convinced Orville Wright to take him on a flight as a passenger on Sept. 17. More than two thousand spectators gathered.

A propeller blade broke during the flight. The plane crashed, Wright was injured and Selfridge killed.

Selfridge was the first serviceman to die in a powered aircraft crash, said Randy Hotton, aviation historian and director of flight operations at the Yankee Air Museum in Ypsilanti. “Despite his death, it’s the start of the recognition that airplanes are going to play a major part in the military in the future,” Hotton said.

Several years after Selfridge’s death, when the Army acquired Joy Aviation Field in Harrison Township, it renamed the field after Selfridge.

The field has played a vital role in military aviation, said Hotton.

“Selfridge field later became a breeding ground for most of the generals who were the big guys in World War II,” he said.