The Tragic Tale Of Thomas Selfridge

Originally published on the FAA’s internal website and at Medium
By K. Daniel Glover

Thomas Selfridge (left) with Alexander Graham Bell, who recruited the military aviator for his Aerial Experiment Association that was competing with the Wright Brothers to be the first in flight (Photo: Air National Guard)

Most pioneer aviators are known for their famous flights, but one of them is best remembered for a fatal flight. Thomas Selfridge became the first person to die in a motorized aircraft accident 109 years ago this September. He was 26 years old.

The tragedy occurred at a key point in aviation history, as the U.S. Army considered a contract to buy airplanes from the Wright brothers. Orville Wright was at the controls of the Wright Flyer that day, nearly five years after he and his brother, Wilbur, made history with flights at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Selfridge, an Army lieutenant with an aviation background, was his passenger — a concession that Orville Wright made reluctantly to try to win the contract.

The two were in the air above Fort Myer, Va., for just a few minutes when a propeller malfunction triggered a chain of events that sent the aircraft plummeting to the ground. Wright survived the accident with severe injuries, but Selfridge never recovered from a fractured skull.

A storied history of Selfridge success
The Selfridge surname was well established in military circles before Thomas Etholen Selfridge was born in 1882. His grandfather and uncle, who shared the name Thomas O., had distinguished Navy careers. Both rose to the rank of rear admiral, and the uncle led an expedition related to the Panama Canal.

Thomas E. Selfridge’s brother, Edward, also was part of an important event in U.S. history. He was part of an infantry regiment that supported future President Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders at San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. “They were a pretty prominent family,” said Dan Heaton, who wrote a book about Thomas E. Selfridge while serving at the Air National Guard base in Michigan that bears the family name.

Selfridge (Photo: Air National Guard)

Like his grandfather and uncle, Thomas E. Selfridge excelled in the military, and he did it at a young age. He was chosen as an alternate to the U.S. Naval Academy while he was still underage, and a year later, he won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He graduated in 1903, the year of the Wright brothers’ first motorized flights.

A native of San Francisco, Selfridge headed back home for his first assignment. He was at the Presidio during the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated the City by the Bay in 1906, a tragedy that prompted a declaration of martial law. As a young lieutenant, he did such a remarkable job during search-and-rescue and cleanup operations that the Army gave him the choice of his next assignment. He opted to teach at West Point for a year and think about it.

While Selfridge was at the academy, Heaton said he wrote a letter to ask the Wright brothers if he could help in their workshop. But they didn’t want someone from the federal government watching them work on an innovative machine the government might want to buy.

Rebuffed by the Wright Brothers, Selfridge instead went to work for Alexander Graham Bell, who turned his attention to aviation and other interests after inventing the telephone. At Bell’s request, President Roosevelt assigned Selfridge to the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Signal Corps in 1907. The corps assigned him to the Bell-funded Aerial Experiment Association for a year of research into an aircraft meant to compete with the Wright brothers’ work. Selfridge eventually piloted — and crashed into the water — an unpowered, tetrahedral kite called Cygnet.
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Danny’s Nightmare Aboard Betty’s Dream

Co-pilot Bill Miller (left) and pilot Alan Miller pose in front of Betty’s Dream in May 2015 after a practice run for the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover. (Photo: K. Daniel Glover)

Co-pilot Bill Miller (left) and pilot Alan Miller pose in front of Betty’s Dream in May 2015 after a practice run for the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover. (Photo: K. Daniel Glover)

Originally published on the FAA’s internal website and at Medium
By K. Daniel Glover

If one slogan could capture my thoughts at lunchtime on May 7, this would be it: “I flew in the belly of a B-25 bomber, and all I got was this lousy motion sickness bag.” That’s how I felt as I exited the floor hatch of Betty’s Dream, stepped onto the tarmac at Culpeper Regional Airport in Virginia and inhaled a much-needed breath of fresh air after a rough flight.

But if a pilot in the Commemorative Air Force had asked me later that day whether I’d ever want to fly in a World War II aircraft again, I probably would have said, “When do we take off?” I don’t think I could resist an adventure like that — even though I get anxious about flying in general and even after having endured the worst flight of my life.

I am a writer for the Federal Aviation Administration and talked my way onto Betty’s Dream while reporting an advance story on the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover for the agency’s internal website. With several high-profile media outlets covering the event, I figured my chances of getting a seat were slim but made my pitch anyway for a flight with good video potential.

Two months and many pestering emails later, I finally heard from Leah Block at CAF: “I will put you on one of the trainers, so you should be able to take some great shots. … You will fly from Culpeper. In the air about an hour.”

The writer originally was scheduled to fly in this Stearman trainer. (Photo: K. Daniel Glover)

The writer originally was scheduled to fly in this
Stearman trainer. (Photo: K. Daniel Glover)

And that’s the point at which my nerves began to fray. The journalist who practically begged for a seat in a 70-year-old warbird suddenly remembered he used to drive up to 10 hours one way for assignments in order to avoid flying in modern aircraft.

When I asked to fly along, I thought I’d be in the air a half-hour max. Fifteen minutes would have been plenty. Now I was looking at an hour in a “trainer”? I didn’t even know what that meant until I clicked to the Arsenal of Democracy website again.

Then I started asking frantic questions. “Do you know yet what type of trainer I will be flying in? And just to prepare myself mentally for the experience, what maneuvers can I expect in the air? My co-worker who is a pilot said I probably want to avoid being turned upside down.”

That was an understatement. I definitely did not want to be part of any acrobatic maneuvers, but I couldn’t bring myself to openly admit that.

Leah reassured me that the flight — later confirmed to be on this Stearman biplane so I could get the best GoPro footage — should be relatively calm and that the pilots had been told not to subject us newbies to any “funny business.” But I was on edge for the next 10 days.

By the morning of the flight, I was more excited than nervous — at least for a few hours. I stopped at a 7–11 on the way to Culpeper to check for Dramamine, but the store did not have the non-drowsy formula. I opted for alertness over peace of stomach, a bad choice in hindsight.

World War II aircraft filled the tarmac at Culpeper Regional Airport earlier this month in preparation for the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover. (Photo: K. Daniel Glover)

World War II aircraft filled the tarmac at Culpeper Regional Airport earlier this month in preparation for the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover. (Photo: K. Daniel Glover)

I was in awe as I drove past the airfield and saw the array of aircraft on the tarmac. My favorites were the P-51 Mustangs and F4U Corsairs, the latter of which I remembered best from the short-lived 1970s television series “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

I went to work after registering at the press office. I snapped a few photos of the warbirds from a distance, listened to part of the pre-flight safety briefing for all pilots and attended a short press conference.

Andrew McKenna, who owns and flies a P-51 Mustang and a North American T-6 Texan, talks with a colleague during a pre-flight safety briefing. (Photo: K. Daniel Glover)

Andrew McKenna, who owns and flies a P-51 Mustang and a North American T-6 Texan, talks with a colleague during a pre-flight safety briefing. (Photo: K. Daniel Glover)

Soon after the press conference, a guide pointed a few of us toward the Stearman planes. We found our designated rides by using the tail numbers on our press badges.

“I’m now at my assigned plane — and pretty well terrified,” I posted to Facebook at 10:07 a.m. My hands were shaking uncontrollably, and my legs were wobbly. I couldn’t even picture myself maintaining enough composure to climb (or fall) into a plane that small, let alone fly in it for an hour without having a panic attack.

Fortunately I only had to ponder that potentially embarrassing fate for a few minutes. When owner/co-pilot John Weyrich arrived, he said he hadn’t realized the ride-along was part of a practice run for the flyover the next day. That being the case, he didn’t have a spare seat for me — but the event organizers found me another spot on a B-25 Mitchell.

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Milbloggers With Attitude

Originally published at NationalJournal.com
By K. Daniel Glover

Bloggers can be a critical bunch. When they don’t like what they see or hear in the world around them, they let everyone within click range of their piece of the Web know it. And when they get together at a blog conference, then the rhetoric can really get harsh.

That’s what happened Saturday at the first annual Milblog Conference in Washington. About 200 soldiers, veterans, family members and assorted others who gathered to celebrate the military blogging community spent much of their time chastising the media, denouncing peace activists and lamenting the military’s lukewarm response to the blogosphere.

The panelists and attendees directed their firepower first and foremost at the media. Novelist and military commentator Austin Bay set the stage as master of ceremonies. He said the nonstop television news cycle “does to war, natural disaster, crime and celebrity trials what pornography does to sex,” adding that the milblog community exists “to get the story [of war] right.”

The gripes against the “mainstream media” amplified from there:

  • Matt, who left the military in 2001 and now blogs at Blackfive, blasted Newsweek for not telling the story of a friend killed in combat — an episode that moved him to start blogging.
  • Author and panel moderator Robert “Buzz” Patterson ranked the media among a “fifth column” in America that aids and abets terrorist enemies.
  • Steve Schippert of ThreatsWatch reached into the past to condemn Walter Cronkite for what Schippert called biased reporting about the Tet Offensive. He said such reporting turned people against the Vietnam War but argued that it “can never, ever happen again — not ever — because of milbloggers.”
  • Chuck Ziegenfuss, who was injured in Iraq last year and blogs at From My Position … On The Way, mistrusts journalists so much that he regularly searches the Internet for their articles before granting interviews. “You kind of have to control them as much as they’re trying to control you,” he said.

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Blogging The Midnight Oil

Originally published at NationalJournal.com
By K. Daniel Glover

Thanks to a snide sound bite from an uppity mainstream journalist, many people no doubt imagine bloggers doing their best work in pajamas. That perception may not have been far from reality at the tail end of last week, as Congress finished its pre-Thanksgiving legislative dash in the wee hours, and citizen journalists followed the action as dutifully as any credentialed reporters.

Bloggers touched on an array of issues. They vented about budget decisions, reported on a last-minute congressional pay raise, covered the latest campaign finance news, called attention to new legislation, and even highlighted obscure provisions tucked into larger bills.

But they reserved most of their commentary for Friday evening’s impromptu and vitriolic debate about the Iraqi war, a debate spurred by the sudden call for a U.S. troop withdrawal from defense hawk John Murtha, D-Pa.

The debate came on a nonbinding resolution urging the troop withdrawal. Republicans oppose that idea but forced the issue to the floor in an attempt to get Democrats on the record for the move. Democrats did not oblige. The vote was 403-3, with six other lawmakers voting “present.”

Several blogs opined on the House antics as the battle unfolded on C-SPAN. The live-blogging included the likes of Captain’s Quarters, Michelle Malkin and PoliPundit on the right, and AMERICAblog, Daily Kos and Seeing the Forest on the left. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., also shared her views in a post at RedState.

When Murtha took to the floor, John Aravosis of AMERICAblog encouraged other bloggers to join the fun. “He’s on C-SPAN now,” Aravosis wrote. “Blog it!”

At PoliPundit, the topic was so hot that when one entry spurred more than 300 comments, Lorie Byrd reignited the discussion with a new post. It promptly generated more than 400 additional comments.
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