|Sikorsky at the controls of his prototype VS-300 helicopter for its maiden tethered flight in September 1939.|
He was the son of privilege in a provincial capital of the Russian Empire. His mother, the decedent of Polish nobles and a physician by training, home-schooled the lad. In addition to the basics she taught him art and music and shared her particular enthusiasm for Leonardo da Vinci and the exciting tales of Jules Vern. The latter two captured the boy’s imagination and by the age of twelve had constructed a model helicopter out of paper, glue, and rubber bands. It was the beginning of a lifelong obsession.
Igor Sikorsky was born in Kiev, in the present-day Ukraine, 1889 the youngest of five children of Ivan Alexeevich Sikorsky, a Russian professor of psychology. By the time he died in faraway Easton, Connecticut on October 26, 1972 at the age of 86 he had turned that childhood plaything into an aviation revolution and built a major company.
His father, an ardent Russian nationalist and monarchist, enrolled his youngest son in the service of the Tsar at then Russian Naval Academy when he was just 14. Although he excelled at his studies young Igor resigned from the Academy in 1906 to study engineering in Paris. The following year he returned home to enter the Mechanical College of the Kiev Polytechnic Institute.
In the summer of 1908, he accompanied his father on a trip to Germany. That was the year Orville Wright was creating a sensation barnstorming Europe and Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin was demonstrating his advanced LZ-4 dirigible. Both ignited the young man’s imagination. “Within twenty-four hours, I decided to change my life's work. I would study aviation,” he would later say.
By 1909 Sikorsky was back in Paris studying at the Ecole des Techniques Aéronautiques et de Construction Automobile. The French were rapidly surpassing the American and France was becoming the center of the aviation world. Sikorsky met and was influenced by the top men in the field including Louis Blériot.
Back in Kiev, he turned to his childhood interest and began working on a helicopter. His first problem was crating stability in the craft. Although he made some breakthroughs on that issue, he disassembled his air craft before testing in when he realized it would not fly. The technology needed for a workable model did not yet exist and Sikorsky felt he personally also had to learn more.
So he turned to fix wing aircraft. He built two underpowered models, one of which briefly got off the ground, before he was successful. In 1910 he had a breakthrough with a two seat aircraft, the S-5, his first entirely original design. Flying it he earned his pilot’s license 1911. He flew many demonstrations in his new plane and was attracting notice for his innovation when he was involved in a crash. A simple mosquito had clogged the carbonator starving the engine. The incident convinced him of the need to develop multi-engine air craft which could survive the loss of a single engine. He enthusiastically threw himself into the development of such planes.
After winning a Russian Army aircraft exhibition in February of 1912 with his new three passenger S-6, Sikorsky joined the Russian Baltic Railroad Car Works in St. Petersburg as Chief Engineer of its new aircraft division. This gave him financial backing and industrial capacity to make huge leaps in development. Within a year he came up with his S-21 Russky Vityaz. A first prototype was mounted with two engines. Wings were extended and four engines in a push-pull arrangement were tried. Finally he mounted four tractor engines on the large bi-plane which Sikorsky himself test piloted on May 12, 1913. The accomplishment finally won him an honorary degree from the St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute, the only degree he ever won.
Sikorsky turned to adapting his design into a commercial airliner, the S-22 Ilya Muromets. It featured an insulated closed cabin with passenger saloon, comfortable wicker chairs, a bedroom, a lounge and even the first airborne toilet. It was heated by the passage of exhaust pipes from the engines through the cabin and had electric lighting powered by a wind turned generator. The cockpit had sufficient space allowing several persons to observe the pilot. Openings on both sides of the fuselage permitted mechanics to climb out onto the lower wings to service the engines during flight. On February 11, the second factory prototype flew a successful demonstration carrying 16 passengers in addition to the pilot, shattering old capacity records. Plans were made to introduce the plane to regular commercial service later in the year.
Those plans were shattered by the outbreak of World War I. Sikorsky quickly adapted his air liner to the world’s first operational heavy bomber, the Military Ilia Mourometz, Type B. It was slightly smaller and lighter than the civilian Type A and fitted with internal racks carried up to 800 kg of bombs, and positions for up to nine machine guns for self-defense in various locations, including the extreme tail. The engines were protected with 5 mm-thick armor.
The bomber went into service in the Imperial Air Force in late 1915 and by 1916 enough had been produced to assemble the world’s first heavy bomber squadrons. A total of 76 planes were produced during the war. Their heavy armament made them practically invincible in the air. Only one was ever shot down by enemy fighters, only after its gunners had knocked out three of the four attackers. Four others were badly damaged but could continue to fly and return to base. The Russians developed the first tactics for heavy bombers, including large scale and night time raids and attacks on industrial and transportation support behind the front lines.
At the beginning of the war, no other power had anything like it. The Germans eventually built their own bomber using parts of a crashed Ilia Mourometz as a guide and licenses were granted to France and England to produce their own planes. Thus virtually every heavy bomber in the Great War was based on Sikorsky’s design.
After the war four surviving bomber were retrofitted back to their original commercial use and between May and October 1921 were put into regular operations between Moscow and Kharkov.
By that time, Sikorsky had fled the country. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent Civil War had made his life in the county untenable. He remained, like his father, a monarchist and conservative as well as an ardent Orthodox Church member. After fleeing the capital, he briefly served as an engineer with French interventionist forces in the Civil War, which cemented his condemnation by the Communist government.
Sikorsky divorced his wife Olga Fyodorovna Simkovitch, perhaps to protect her, and left her and their infant daughter, Tania, behind then fled to the United States.
On arrival he found a nation that was a relative aviation backwater. Other nations had made most of the great technological leaps of the War years and the American forces flew mostly English or French made aircraft or American versions built under license. The clamor to disarm cut the possibility of military contracts. Only barnstorming pilots and airmail service using obsolete bi-planes kept any interest in aviation alive. Sikorsky struggled to support himself as a teacher and sometime lecturing on aviation.
Finally with the support of exiled Russian Army officers and a major $5,000 investment by composer Sergei Rachmaninoff he was able to form the Sikorsky Manufacturing Company in Roosevelt, New York in 1923. The same year he brought three of his sisters and his daughter Tania over from Russia. In 1924 Sikorsky married 21 year old Elisabeth Semion. They would have four children, including Igor, Jr. who would follow his father’s footsteps as an executive in his company.
His new company turned back to the design and production of commercial air liners. The S-29-A was an all-metal, twin-engine biplane airliner, capable of carrying 16 passengers and a crew of three first flown in 1924. The airline industry was in its early infancy and the plane never sold for its intended purpose. The prototype was sold and used in promotions for Curlee Clothing and somehow as a “flying cigar store.” Howard Hughes used it as a stand-in for a bomber in Hell’s Angels in 1929. It crashed and was destroyed during the filming.
After becoming an American citizen in 1928 Sikorsky merged his company with United Aircraft and Transport (now United Technologies Corporation) becoming the Vought-Sikorsky Aircraft Division. As was the case with his association with the Russian rail car manufacturer, the association with a larger company gave him more assets and the industrial capacity to produce planes in numbers. A plant was established at Stratford, Connecticut.
Sikorski did not invent the Flying Boat, but he and his company produced the first really successful trans-oceanic airliners. After developing a successful prototype the S-40 in 1931, Pan American Airlines (Pan Am) president Juan Trippe, asked Sikorski to submit a design. At a luncheon meeting with Pan Am consultant Charles Lindbergh on a test flight of the S-40 the two men sketched out plans for a grand new aircraft on a napkin.
The S-42, which went into production in 1934, became the mainstay of Pan Am’s global Clipper service flying on Latin American, Trans-Atlantic, and Trans-Pacific routes. Only 10 were built but Pan Am kept them plenty busy. The planes could carry 37 day passengers or 14 sleeper berths. They had a range of 1,930 miles before needing to be refueled, and flew at 180 miles per hour, a speed that gobbled up miles on the long trips.
Sikorski had returned to tinkering with vertical lift ideas as early as 1929 when he filed a patent on a direct lift amphibious aircraft which used compressed air to power a direct lift propeller and two smaller propellers for thrust. Another direct lift patent was granted the next year. But neither of these were true helicopters. They were somewhat similar to Spanish designer Juan de la Cierva’s fixed wing auto-gyros with enhanced ability to take off and land completely vertically and even to hover.
The Vought-Sikorsky VS-300, was not the first true helicopter—the Soviet Yuriev/Cheremukhin was flown in 1932—but it was the first built in the United States and the first with the combination of a single horizontal rotor for lift and small vertical rotor mounted on a tail for stability, both powered by a single engine. This is the configuration that almost all modern helicopters incorporate. Mounted with pontoons it became the first amphibious helicopter and was the first to have cargo capacity. The VS-300 was tested on a tether on September 14, 1939 Sikorsky few the first untethered test flight on May 13, 1940.
Despite the breakthrough the demand for other type of aircraft production with the outbreak of World War II, interrupted further development and production. In 1942 the company introduced the two-man R-4 which became the first helicopter in the world to go into mass production. After testing prototypes which set records for endurance time aloft and distance, the Army ordered 44 aircraft, designated YR-4A, for use as a reconnaissance scout and passenger ferry. The British ordered a handful for use on carriers.
In 1944 a YR-4A performed the first helicopter rescue in history when it extracted the pilot of a crashed aircraft and three British passengers from rugged mountain country in Burma, bringing the men out in multiple flights. That soon became a primary mission of the new aircraft. They were also used to ferry aircraft parts to and from ships and to remote locations.
The R-6 Hoverfly II was an improved, streamlined upgrade with increased speed and lift power that introduced by American and British forces in 1945 and saw limited use. The British were the first to fit the landing booms with external stretcher bearing capacity for medical evacuation. These machines continued in limited use through the early 1950’s. Surplus YR-4A and R-6 were sold on the civilian market after the war igniting interest in commercial possibilities.
The post war years meant a growing demand for a variety of helicopters. Among those produced were the H-19 Chickasaw, an eighteen passenger work horse that was ordered in large numbers by the Army, Navy (HOS-4) and Marines (HRS). They were extensively used in the Korean War for cargo delivery, behind the lines troop transport, and medical evacuation. The Navy and Coast Guard adapted theirs to air-see rescue. Many were sold to foreign governments as well and the French were the first to use them in active combat as for paratroop insertion and as gun platforms in Algeria and to a lesser degree in Indo China. It was French tactics that caused a re-evaluation of the use of helicopters by American forces. The H-19 also had a long life in civilian service.
The Navy’s SH-3 Sea King dual turbo-prop anti-submarine helicopter was introduced in 1961 and the Army’s heavy lifting CH-54 Tarhe or Flying Crane which was capable of delivering a tank even retreating a downed aircraft, in 1962. CH-3 Jolly Green Giant introduced in with fore and aft rotors and a rear ramp became a major cargo delivery and troop carrier ship.
Sikorski lost the competition for an Army utility helicopter Bell’s UH-1 Iroquois (Huey), which became the work horse of the Vietnam War and the ship around which air mobile and air cavalry tactics were built. But the company would come roaring back.
Sikorski himself remained active as Chief Engineer and had at least a hand in the development of everything that came out of his New Jersey plant, although his son and a new generation of designers took up more and more of the detailed work. He also had time for other interests, including art and music. His interest in religion never flagged and he wrote two volumes of essays on the subject, The Message of the Lord’s Prayer and The Invisible Encounter, both published during World War II. He developed the Aeronautical Engineering program at Rhode Island University where he was a professor from 1932 to ’48 and subsequently lectured at the University of Bridgeport near his home. And he was a long time member of the Board of the Tolstoy Foundation which helped Soviet displaced persons, dissidents and former Soviet citizens to settle in the West.
As noted, Sikorski died in 1972 and was buried in a Greek Orthodox cemetery near his home.
But his work and company went on. In 1974 the Army UH-60 Black Hawk, and Navy SH-60 Seahawk tactical armed transport helicopters with dual use as troop insertion and were introduced upgraded models are still in production. They are still a backbone of operations and have been extensively used in conflicts including the First Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Their vulnerability to shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons and small arms—as the Russian discovered flying similar aircraft in Afghanistan, and as was demonstrated in the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia has caused military planners to reassess the air-mobile tactic of Vietnam.
Despite this, the Navy is now operating its entire armed transport, reconnaissance, vertical insertion fleets with variants of the Seahawk.