Igor Sikorsky (1889-1972) dreamed big.
As a child in the 1890s, he dreamed of building a helicopter inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous sketch. Mesmerized by Jules Verne’s stories of flying ships, he envisioned manufacturing large, luxurious airplanes.
And during three careers — in Russia before and during the First World War, and from 1919 in the United States — he fulfilled his dreams in a remarkable manner.
But along the way, Sikorsky needed benefactors, some luck, a healthy dose of engineering intuition, and more than one big career break.
Changes in fortune would come to the innovative Sikorsky when he needed them most. Only at the start of his third career did his name become synonymous with the modern helicopter, which he designed and flew in 1939 at age 50 — an achievement that would launch a business and a global industry.
Sikorsky’s first career
Biographer Frank J. Delear tells the remarkable story of Sikorsky’s first big career break in his 1969 book “Igor Sikorsky: His Three Careers in Aviation.”
The time and place: September 1912, St. Petersburg. The scene: twenty-three year old Sikorsky has just landed his S-6B aircraft, a single engine biplane of his own design, during a military-sponsored competition. Tired and chilled from his 90-minute flight in an open plane that also proved it could climb to 1,500 meters in less than 15 minutes, Sikorsky is handed an invitation to dine that night at the home of his mentor and employer, Michael Vladimirovich Shidlowsky.
A former Russian naval officer and government official, Shidlowsky had invested in the Russian-Baltic Wagon Company in Riga, revitalizing the company’s declining railroad car and farm machinery business, and adding a successful automotive business. In early 1912, seeking to diversify further, Shidlowsky had appointed Sikorsky, a rising star in Russian aviation design, to lead his fledgling aviation division in St. Petersburg.
As Delear tells it, Sikorsky sensed that Shidlowsky, his senior by 34 years, seemed uninterested in the aviation competition that, if won, would bring a prize of 30,000 rubles ($15,000) and important airplane orders to the new factory.
So that evening, Sikorsky brought up a subject near and dear to his heart — his dream to build a large, four-engine airplane. One that could fly 500-800 km, and stay aloft even if an engine died. One that could carry 8-12 passengers and crew in an enclosed cockpit and cabin for protection against the bitter cold.
Sikorsky ended his remarks with a suggestion: “If we win the military competition, let’s use the prize money to build a four-engine airplane.” The chairman’s reply was short and to the point: “No. Start building the plane immediately.”
The astonished Sikorsky hurried to the factory to rouse his co-workers for a 1 a.m. business meeting. Serving wine, he explained their goal to his excited workforce — the design and build of the world’s first four-engine aircraft.
Within a month, Sikorsky piloting the S-6B had completed and won the military aviation competition against 10 other competitors. The Russian-Baltic Wagon Company accepted half the prize money, and began taking orders for the S-6B. With the other half of the prize money, Igor repaid a large part of the debt he owed his family in Kiev, who had bankrolled his fledgling aircraft building activities since 1908, including a failed attempt to build a helicopter.
The Grand and the Ilya Muromets
Sikorsky’s four-engine airliner — initially called the Grand, and a second version called the Bolshoi Baltisky (Great Baltic) — was completed in May 1913. Impressive and luxurious, the craft featured a 27 meter wing span, with a 20 meter fuselage length. Many doubted it could ever fly.
Fly it did, magnificently; its first flight was a glorious success. Through intuition, Sikorsky had designed his airliner with the one aerodynamic characteristic that mattered — long, narrow wings incorporating a high aspect ratio, instead of short, wide wings as was customary in single engine aircraft of the time.
The Grand’s success attracted the attention of the Emperor Nicholas II, who inspected the aircraft that summer. In 1914, Sikorsky built a second four-engine airplane, the Ilya Muromets, with a 20 percent larger wingspan.
Then in 1914 came the Great War and a production contract for a fleet of Ilya Muromets outfitted as bomber/reconnaissance aircraft. The sixty-year-old Shidlowsky, now returned to active service as a major general, accepted a commission as commander of The Squadron of Flying Ships (Eskadra Vozdushnykh Korablei or EVK).
Despite their operational success, the impact of the Ilya Muromets aircraft was undermined by the Bolshevik Revolution, which closed the factory and curtailed war operations. Sikorsky, learning he was a marked man, in early 1919 escaped to the United States with $600 in his pocket. His mentor Shidlowsky and many officers of the EVK were executed.
Second career — an American triumph
In New York City, Sikorsky stayed close to the Russian community. With investment and labor from other educated Russian immigrants, he formed the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation in 1923. The company’s open-air ‘factory’ on a Long Island, New York chicken farm included a handful of employees working with a few hand tools.
From this improbable situation emerged Sikorsky’s first American project, the 14-passenger S-29A (for America) sesqiplane. Built from discarded iron bed frames found at a local junkyard, and two 300 horsepower engines, the 15 meter long fuselage featured a 19 meter lower wingspan and a 21 meter upper wingspan.
Still, construction waxed and waned for lack of funds.
Then in stepped the great Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff with a check for $5,000. The investment allowed the company to rent a leaky wooden hangar at Long Island’s Roosevelt Field, and complete the aircraft.
A successful first flight in early 1924 prompted a New York newspaper to describe the S-29A aircraft as “a triumph of Russian ingenuity and perseverance.”
While the S-29A aircraft was to launch Sikorsky’s reputation as a master designer and builder of large transport aircraft, the U.S. government was rethinking how it could use air transport. In 1925, the government authorized the Post Office Department to award airmail services to private airlines.
Investors poured in. Sikorsky reorganized his company as the Sikorsky Manufacturing Company, and still later the Sikorsky Aviation Company. By 1928, Sikorsky had correctly found his market with a twin-engine amphibian (flying boat) called the S-38. Equally at home on land or sea, the S-38 could carry eight passengers and a crew of two, climb 304 meters a minute, and cruise for six hours or 965 km.
This was followed by a series of amphibian aircraft that would attract the attention of Pan American Airways, and then United Aircraft, which purchased his company in 1929.
Sikorsky was once introduced at a testimonial dinner as the “inventor” of the helicopter.
Politely correcting the speaker, he pointed out that he and his team of engineers had “merely” kept abreast of existing technologies, which they had combined with the successful design and construction of an aircraft capable of controlled vertical flight.
The opportunity to design, build and fly a helicopter came in 1938 when United Aircraft granted Sikorsky, their chief engineer, a budget to pursue his enduring visionary idea.
Sikorsky had tried to build a practical helicopter in the grounds of his family home in Kiev, in 1909. A wood and wire-braced frame built around an Anzani 25-horsepower engine incorporated a transmission of wooden pulleys and belts that drove coaxial shafts topped with two twin-bladed rotors.
Months of frustration forced the young Sikorsky to abandon his goal, even with a larger engine, which lifted the apparatus a few centimeters off the ground. But the effort proved to him that vertical lift flight was possible.
And now, decades later in Stratford, Connecticut, USA, he faced his third big opportunity.
Fast forward to Sept. 14, 2014, which marks the 75th anniversary of the 1939 first flight of the S-46 (VS-300), the world’s first practical helicopter.
Today, tens of thousands of helicopters ply the skies around the world. But the practical configuration they almost all use — a single main rotor with an anti-torque tail rotor — was designed and perfected by Sikorsky and his team in 1938-40.
The Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation has produced many thousands of commercial and military helicopters over the past 75 years. Iconic designs include the BLACK HAWK and SEAHAWK® helicopters in operation by the U.S. military, and by almost 30 other armed forces worldwide. In 2007, Sikorsky opened a BLACK HAWK factory in the southern Poland city of Mielec.
Sikorsky helicopters have flown every U.S. president since Eisenhower — a period of 57 years. In May 2014, the U.S. Navy announced it had chosen the Sikorsky S-92® commercial aircraft to become the next ‘Marine One’ helicopter for the president of the United States.
Next generation design
Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation continues to lead the rotorcraft industry.
In 2014, the company is assembling two prototype helicopters of 4,990 kg featuring a rigid rotor coaxial design with the designation X2.
An X2 demonstrator aircraft with Sikorsky Chief Pilot Kevin Bredenbeck in the cockpit flew 23 test flights from August 2008 to July 2011. The aircraft achieved a speed of 253 knots (468 km/h) in level flight on Sept. 15, 2010 — an unofficial helicopter speed record.
The company expects the X2 helicopter design in the form of the S-97 RAIDER™ helicopter will have twice the speed and maneuverability of conventional vertical lift aircraft.
The future of the company, which currently employs more than 15,000, remains bright.
Igor Sikorsky — a Brief Portrait
The classic definition of a “Renaissance Man” is one who has broad intellectual interests, and is accomplished in a wide range of fields. Igor Sikorsky definitely qualifies for this description. He was an inventor and genius in the field of aviation.
His first attempt to conceive and develop a flying machine was one that truly defies gravity. With no formal aerodynamic background, he designed and built a coaxial rotor helicopter that could lift itself, but not the inventor. Just over 100 years later, his company successfully broke an unofficial world speed record for a helicopter (253 knots).
During a lecture, Sikorsky was questioned, “You have flown far, and you have flown very high. Have you ever seen God?” After a pause, he answered, “No, but I have felt His Presence!”
Charles Lindbergh’s wife Anne described Sikorsky’s personality with the following statement: “The thing that is remarkable about Igor Sikorsky, is the great precision in his thought and speech, combined with an extraordinary soaring beyond facts. He can soar out with the mystics and come right back to the practical, to daily life and people. He never excludes people. Sometimes the religious-minded exclude people or force their beliefs on others. Igor never does.”
Eugene E. Wilson, president of United Aircraft Corporation in 1956, wrote an article for the Readers Digest Magazine titled, “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Ever Met.”
“Sikorsky goes to his plant each morning to confer with his staff, but his really important work takes place late at night, when he often sits in the dark and thinks to music. An unabashed mystic, he believes that some artists and writers possess the gift of seeing beyond the curtain of time and detecting cloudy visions of things to come. Modestly he suggests that engineers may also share the gift.”
Igor Sikorsky passed away peacefully in his sleep in 1972 at the age of 83 after putting in a typical day at his Sikorsky Aircraft office.