It had been about five years since Wilbur and Orville Wright made history with their airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. During the following years, the brothers developed their flying machine into the first practical fixed-wing aircraft, the Wright Flyer. And in 1908, Orville took the Flyer to Fort Myer, Virginia, to demonstrate it for the US Army Signal Corps division.
Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge arranged to be a passenger on the demonstration flight while Orville piloted the craft. Selfridge might be considered one of the first frequent flyers. Selfridge took his first flight in 1907, a flight that took him 168 feet in the air above Bras d’Or Lake in Nova Scotia, Canada. He also piloted a Canadian craft that flew three feet off the ground for about 100 feet. He next took to the air in Hammondsport, New York, traveling 100 feet on his first attempt and 200 feet on his second. The next day he added another 800 yards to his mileage credit. A successful flight with Orville would no doubt have given him an upgrade if not a free flight.
On September 17, 1908, Selfridge and Orville circled Fort Myer in the Wright Flyer 4½ times at 150 feet. Halfway through the fifth go-round, the right propeller broke, losing thrust. A nasty vibration ensued, causing the split propeller to hit a guy wire bracing the rear vertical rudder. Luggage flew out of the overhead storage compartments; the wire tore out of its fastening and shattered the propeller; the rudder swiveled and sent the Flyer into a nose-dive. Orville ordered Selfridge to return to his seat and fasten his seat belt. Then he shut off the engine and managed to glide to about 75 feet, but the Flyer hit the ground nose first — not a smooth landing.
Orville was bruised and quite embarrassed. His passenger was unfortunately dead, the first ever airplane fatality. If Selfridge had been wearing a helmet of some sort, he most likely would have survived the crash. The fatality also saddled the fledgling flying industry with a pretty poor safety track record – one death per 2,500 passenger-feet, just slightly better than traveling on the back of a hungry lion.