This Week In Aviation History: Be Careful What You Wish For

Thomas Selfridge, a Lieutenant in the United States Army, found himself in Canada on December 6, 1907 — more important, he found himself volunteering to fly. As a member of the Aerial Experiment Association, he had been waiting for such an opportunity and on that day at Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, he got it.

The craft he was about to climb into was The Cygnet, a man-carrying kite designed and built by Alexander Graham Bell. Bell favored the tetrahedron in design; he had built towers, shelters and other structures with the design, and many of his kites used tetrahedral layers in their layout.

The Cygnet used 12 layers of the pyramidal cells, for a total of 3,393 cells; each cell was made of over 540 square centimeters of silk, covering a wooden frame. The span of the great kite was 13 meters and it reached 2.16 meters high. There was a central pod that the passenger could lay upon, and this was 4.75 meters long. This pod extended beyond the length of the cells, which were a uniform 3.8 meters from front to back on the lower layer of the kite’s ‘wing.’ The rider would not be the pilot, as he had no control of his craft. Future plans called for an engine and controls, but at this early stage of testing, Selfridge would have to do without.

The kite had been flown — briefly and unmanned — on December 3rd, but on the 6th Selfridge climbed aboard. The kite was resting on a cradle, which itself was mounted on a waterborne catamaran. The catamaran was unpowered and this raft was pulled by a steamer running on Bras d’Or Lake at Cape Breton Island. Using the 9-mile per hour speed of the boat (plus a 21-mile per hour headwind) the cygnet was able to take flight.

Flying for just seven minutes, Selfridge was able to reach an altitude of 168 feet above the lake. Then, the Cygnet became one of the first victims of poor pre-flight planning. The wind dropped and the Cygnet hit the water, but the tow crew had not been trained to move quickly to cut the tow line. Partly due to the fragility of the silk, and in part due to still being under tow and getting dragged in the water, the kite was damaged. Selfridge was unhurt however, and was picked up almost immediately by a motor boat providing escort.

The designer and builder of the Cygnet (later the Cygnet I as successive models were built) was Alexander Graham Bell. The famous inventor was president of the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), and Thomas Selfridge was the Association secretary. Other members included another young man; a noted motorcycle racer named Glenn H. Curtiss.

Selfridge did finally fly in powered aircraft when he flew the AEA ‘White Wing’ on May 18, 1908. But he is most noted for one tragic honor: Selfridge flew with Orville Wright onboard the Wright 1908 Military Flyer on September 17, 1908. The aircraft crashed that day and while Orville survived his injuries, Lt. Thomas Etholen Selfridge became the first man to be killed in a powered — and otherwise, controllable — airplane.