On 17 September, 1908, Orville Wright was demonstrating his Wright Flyer Mark III to the US Army at Fort Meyer, Virginia. Tragically, during the fifth circuit of the field, one of the twin propellers separated and tore loose one of the rudder wires. Losing control, Wright nose-dived into the ground from a height of 75 feet. He suffered broken bones, but his passenger, Lt Thomas E Selfridge, died from head injuries and became the first recorded fatality in the history of powered flight.
In the 100 years since Selfridge's death, thousands more lives have been lost in air incidents, each cut short in a sacrifice to man's desire to defy the law of gravity. This short series of entries summarises the curtailed careers of a few of the better-known victims, and outlines the circumstances behind each incident.
Those Magnificent Men and Women
It is sometimes said that when we take to the skies we are 'taking our lives in our own hands', but it's plain that the causes of accidents are almost always out of our control. Pilot error, air traffic control errors, mechanical failures, design faults, adverse weather and bird strikes have all been significant causes. Less accidental are the acts of sabotage, terrorism and military operations. Statistics tell us that we are far more likely to die in a car or when crossing a busy road, and so most of us are prepared to take the risk of flying. Certainly, the benefits of air travel are manifold; it has shrunk the world for businessmen and backpackers alike.
The risks were far greater for the pioneers of flight. Organisations like the US Postal Service which used the fledgling air services were to lose many staff in the early days. The Wright Brothers themselves perhaps amazingly survived numerous crashes since their first powered flights at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Wilbur prematurely succumbed to typhoid in 1912, but Orville survived to 1948, until he suffered a fatal heart attack. Others too survived; solo transatlantic pioneer Charles Lindbergh earned the nickname 'Lucky Lindy' through his ability to walk unscathed from many a burning wreckage, but many were not so fortunate.
One of the earliest European aviators, a Frenchman named Leon Delagrange, recorded a series of flight endurance records in his Voisin aircraft in 1907, vying with his compatriot Henry Farman. In the following year, Delagrange became the first European pilot to take a passenger: Farman himself.
He was to lose his life on 4 January, 1910 at Pau, France. Delagrange had fitted a more powerful Gnome engine to his Bleriot XI monoplane, but the increased power caused the left wing to collapse and the plane to crash to the ground from a height of 60 feet.
The name of Britain's first recorded air accident fatality continues to be associated with the aviation industry today: Charles Stewart Rolls, who, with Frederick Henry Royce, set up the world-famous luxury car firm in 1906. Rolls-Royce engines have powered aircraft throughout their history, and the firm is currently the world's second-largest aero-engine manufacturer after General Electric Aviation. Rolls's aviation achievements included obtaining British pilot's licence number two1, and flying across the English Channel and returning without landing, on 2 June, 1910.
Rolls, a keen aviator, was piloting his Wright Flyer Type A biplane at an air show at Bournemouth, Dorset on 12 July, 1910 when he attempted to recover from a dive. An additional elevator which he had fitted to the plane failed, and the aircraft fell to the ground from only 20 feet. He died of head injuries.
On 27 September, 1910, Peruvian-born Parisian Georges Chavez joined five other challengers to attempt the first crossing of the Alps. Flying from Brig, Switzerland, they would pass through the 2,000m high Simplon Pass, to land at an air show in Milan. In his wooden Bleriot XI monoplane, Chavez successfully negotiated the mountain crossing. Struggling with the controls in the freezing windy conditions on the Italian side of the border, Chavez eventually brought his plane in to land. Sadly, at a height of just 30 feet, the plane unexpectedly stalled and crashed to the ground. The reasons are not clear, but the numbing cold suffered by the 23-year-old pilot was probably a factor. Chavez died from his injuries four days later.
On 18 January, 1911, Eugene Ely2 heralded in the age of the aircraft carrier when he landed a Curtiss 'Pusher' biplane on a specially constructed platform on board the USS Pennsylvania at San Francisco. Two months earlier he had successfully taken off from a ship - the USS Birmingham at Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Ely was to lose his life just months after that feat, when his Wright Flyer crashed during a demonstration flight at the Georgia State Fair in Macon, on 19 October, 1911. Ely had modified his plane by removing a front elevator, and failed to control it when recovering from a dive. After witnessing him crash and break his neck, the crowd ghoulishly rushed to seize trophies from aeroplane parts and even Ely's own clothing.
Calbraith Perry Rogers
Calbraith Perry Rogers's claim to fame was his 1911 flight in a Wright Flyer biplane, the Vin Fiz3, from New York to California - the first US transcontinental flight. Negotiating the journey in 70 separate hops over 49 days, Rogers's ground crew were forced to rebuild the plane a number of times. It is reported that of the original aircraft which set off, only two wing struts, one rudder and the engine oil pan remained at the end.
Rodgers, 33, went on to record another first: the first casualty from a bird strike, after he flew his Wright Flyer into a flock of seagulls during an air show at Long Beach, California on 3 April, 1912. One lodged in the controls, causing Rogers to crash into the sea and break his neck.
Journalist Harriet Quimby became America's first woman pilot, gaining her licence on 1 August, 1911. Eight months later, in a Bleriot monoplane, she went on to repeat Bleriot's 1909 feat, becoming the first woman to fly across the English Channel, but press coverage of her achievement was overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic earlier that week.
Quimby was to lose her life less than three months later, at the age of 37. On 1 July, 1912, she and her friend William Willard were demonstrating a Bleriot monoplane at a Massachusetts air show, when the plane pitched forward suddenly. As neither were wearing seat belts, Quimby and Willard were both hurled out and fell to their deaths. No explanation for the plane's behaviour was found.
Colonel Samuel F Cody
The first powered flight in Britain was made by the flamboyant Texan Samuel Cody in his experimental biplane on 16 October, 1908. He continued to refine his designs, and went on to record a world distance record of 40 miles in the following year.
On 7 August, 1913, Cody was out for a pleasure trip over Farnborough in a seaplane he himself designed, when it broke up at a height of 500ft and crashed, killing Cody and his passenger, cricketer WHB Evans.
To mark the coronation of King George V, Gustav Hamel, the son of the German-born Royal Physician, flew a Bleriot monoplane all of 21 miles between Hendon and Windsor on 9 September, 1911. For this he has been credited with flying the world's first official airmail service.
Hamel later trained Harriet Quimby (see above), and even offered to don her distinctive purple flying suit and secretly fly her cross-channel flight on her behalf - she declined.
Plans for a transatlantic attempt were at an advanced stage, when Hamel unexpectedly went missing on a cross-channel flight from Paris on 23 May, 1914. He had just taken possession of a new Morane-Saulnier monoplane. No trace was found.
One of the earliest aerobatic display pilots, Frenchman Adolphe Pegoud shot to fame after performing Europe's first parachute jump from a plane, on 19 August, 1913. This was particularly remarkable in that Pegoud was flying solo at the time, and left his Bleriot XI to ungracefully crash to the ground.
Pegoud was hired by Bleriot to demonstrate his aircraft. He went on to record a number of acrobatic feats, including, in September 1913, the world's first controlled upside-down flight, and what he believed to be the first loop-the-loop. However, he was pipped to the post by Russian army pilot Lt Petr Nikolaevich Nesterov, who had completed the feat 12 days earlier.
During World War I, Pegoud volunteered for flying duties, and is widely regarded as the world's first fighter ace, shooting down six German planes in 1915. He did not survive the war, however, being shot down himself later that year by a German pilot he himself had trained. Pegoud was 26 years old.
Tennis fans will recognise the name of Roland Garros from the stadium named in his honour, which hosts the French Open grand slam tournament. As an aviation pioneer, Garros completed the first non-stop crossing of the Mediterranean Sea, in a Morane-Saulnier monoplane on 23 September, 1913. Leaving from St Raphael, he landed at Bizerta, Tunisia with just one gallon of fuel left in the tank.
During World War I, Garros became another of the world's first fighter pilots, having a machine gun and deflector plates fitted to his Moraine-Saulnier Type L, and subsequently shooting down three German planes. Like Pegoud, Garros didn't survive the war. After being shot down once, surviving, escaping from a German prisoner-of-war camp and again taking to the skies, he was finally shot down and killed at Vouziers, Ardennes on 5 October, 1918.
With his navigator Arthur Brown, John Alcock achieved fame for piloting the first non-stop transatlantic flight. An astonishing team effort, Alcock successfully negotiated poor visibility and wintry conditions in an open cockpit, while Brown was regularly called on to climb on to the wings to remove ice from the air intakes. Their Vickers Vimy IV left St John's, Newfoundland on 14 June 1919, and crash-landed in an Irish bog the next day.
Just six months later, Alcock was killed while flying to the Paris airshow. His Vickers Viking amphibian aircraft stalled in foggy conditions near Rouen and struck a tree.
Australian Harry Hawker made his mark on aviation history through the company which bears his name, famous today for such aircraft as the Hurricane and the Harrier. In Britain, as chief test pilot for Thomas Sopwith, Hawker achieved a number of early endurance and altitude records. The following year, he was credited with performing the first controlled recovery from a spin - an exceedingly dangerous manoeuvre which had almost claimed Hawker's life after an earlier crash.
On 18 May, 1919, Hawker attempted a transatlantic flight in a single-engined Sopwith Atlantic biplane. Leaving from Newfoundland with his navigator, the plane was to suffer radiator failure, forcing the plane down in rough seas in mid-Atlantic. Miraculously, they were spotted by a passing Danish vessel which rescued them and delivered them to Scotland six days later.
Hawker's luck was finally to run out on 16 July, 1921. Practising for the round-London Aerial Derby race, his plane caught fire and crashed for reasons which remain unknown.
In an age when aviation was for the rich and opportunity was for the white man, the achievements of Bessie Coleman4 are nothing short of awe-inspiring. Born into a poor family of 13 in the Deep South with a Native American father and African-American mother, Coleman dreamt of flying after hearing stories from her brother on his return from World War I. She eventually achieved this by taking herself and her savings to France, where she enrolled in an aviation school, becoming the first black US pilot in 1921. Returning home, Coleman found fame performing in airshows, earning the nickname 'Queen Bess', and was naturally a sensation with the press.
It was while practising for an air show that Coleman lost her life. On 30 April, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida she and her co-pilot and mechanic, William Wills, were in Coleman's Jenny Trainer. Scouting for parachute landing sites, Coleman was leaning over the edge of the cockpit, not wearing a seatbelt, when the plane suddenly lurched forward and rolled, throwing her to her death from 1,500 feet. Wills couldn't regain control and was also killed as the plane crashed nearby. The cause was found to be a wrench left inside the control gears by Wills - the archetypal 'spanner in the works'.
The intriguingly-named American Wiley Post pioneered flying at high altitude, having developed a pressurised flying suit in the 1930s. He had previously set records for the fastest round-the world flight in 1931, and the first while flying solo, two years later. All this was made more remarkable since he had lost an eye in an accident while working on an oil drilling platform in 1926.
In 1935, Post was flying a hybrid Lockheed plane when he was approached to fly to Alaska with his friend Will Rogers, to find material for a newspaper article. Post decided to add pontoon floats to his plane to enable it to land on water, but added ones which were unnecessarily large. On 15 August, en route to the northern coast of Alaska, the plane stalled and crashed into a river near Point Barrow, killing both Post and Rogers.
Australian Charles Kingsford-Smith achieved many firsts in his aviation career. Notable among these were the first flight from Australia to New Zealand, in his Fokker Trimotor in 1928, and then the first crossing of the Pacific from the US to Australia, in a Fokker monoplane, arriving in Brisbane on 10 June, 1928. He had previously served in the army, surviving Gallipoli and winning the Military Cross with the British Royal Flying Corps. He was knighted in 1935 for his services to aviation.
Kingsford-Smith lost his life on 8 November, 1935, while attempting an England to Australia speed record in a Lockheed Altair. On a leg from India to Singapore, the aircraft ran into a monsoon. Wreckage was later found in the Bay of Bengal, south of Burma, but the bodies of Kingsford-Smith and his co-pilot were never found.
American aviator5 Amelia Earhart was the 'Action Girl' of her time. She set a world altitude record in 1931, and again on 21 May, 1932, in her Lockheed Vega, and became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, repeating Charles Lindbergh's feat of 1927. Taking off from Newfoundland, Earhart successfully overcame a series of technical crises, including a fuel leak and a broken altimeter, before landing the following day at Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Four years earlier she had become the first transatlantic female passenger in a Fokker F7, the Friendship, in 1928. On that occasion, after negotiating an Atlantic storm, the crew successfully managed to land the Fokker at Burry Port, Wales.
Earhart's end came during a round-the-world attempt in a Lockheed Electra 10E with navigator Fred Noonan in July, 1937. Having successfully travelled eastwards from Miami to Lae, New Guinea, they attempted a 2,500-mile hop to Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. They never arrived, and a major air/sea search failed to recover anything. It is assumed that either they ran into a storm, or their navigation led them off course, and scattered clouds made it difficult to identify the tiny island before they ran out of fuel.
Britain's answer to Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson, achieved worldwide fame in May, 1930 when she flew her De Havilland Gypsy Moth, Jason, from Croydon, England to Darwin, Australia. She went on to record further significant flights to Japan, South Africa, the United States and India, many of which were with her pilot husband Jim Mollison.
Johnson's death paralleled Earhart's in some ways. Employed by the British Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II, she was delivering an Airspeed Oxford from Blackpool to Kidlington, Oxfordshire on 5 January, 1941, when she lost her way in a storm. Johnson bailed out in the Thames Estuary and was spotted alive in the water by the passing HMS Haslemere, but the rescue attempt failed to reach her before she was dragged beneath the ship. Her body was never recovered.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Another pioneer of postal aviation was the Frenchman Antoine de Saint-Exupery6, who established air-mail services between France and its territories in North Africa in the 1920s. In 1935, he and his navigator crash-landed in the Sahara desert while attempting to break the Paris-Saigon speed record, incredibly surviving for four days until they were rescued by a passing Bedouin.
Saint-Exupery was also a successful author and wove into the plots of his novels many of his aviation experiences. His most famous work was the 1943 novel The Little Prince.
Fighting with the Allies in World War II, Saint-Exupery was to disappear during a reconnaissance flight on 31 July, 1944. For many years he was thought to have crashed into the sea off Marseilles - an unidentified body was indeed recovered and buried at the time - but this was only confirmed to be his in 1998, when an identifying silver bracelet was discovered, followed in 2004 by the plane's wreckage on the seabed.
Lyon's international airport is named after Saint-Exupery, making him one of only two air crash victims to have that honour. The other is Oporto's airport, named after Portuguese Prime Minister Francisco Sa Carneiro, the story of whom is covered in part 4 of this series.