"The helicopter approaches closer than any other vehicle to fulfillment of mankind's ancient dreams of the flying horse and the magic carpet." - Igor Sikorsky

Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky, aviation pioneer and father of the modern helicopter, was born in Kiev, Russia in 1889 and is proof that great advances are often the perseverance of a single, very stubborn person. His mother was a doctor and his father a psychology professor at Kiev University. Homeschooled by his mother until age 9, she instilled in him a love for science through the flying machines in Leonardo da Vinci's journals and Jules Verne's books. By age 12 the budding engineer had already built a rubber band powered helicopter.

Early years in Russia

As a young man, he initially enrolled in the Naval War College in St. Petersburg, in 1903, but left in 1906 to attend engineering school in Paris. Upon his return to Russia in 1907 he enrolled in the engineering program at Kiev University. Even as the triumph of the Wright Brothers in achieving powered flight led him to the fledgling field of aeronautics, he was still fixated on the idea of a machine that would take off vertically like Leonardo's aerial screw. After spending a vacation with his parents in Germany measuring the lift of a four foot helicopter propeller, his sister funds his return to Paris where he had a chance to mingle with other early pioneering enthusiasts of flight like Louis Blériot in one of the first schools in the field.

Though his colleagues in Paris had discouraged him from pursuing the helicopter, he returns to Kiev bearing a three cylinder(a trailblazing early radial piston configuration), twenty-five horsepower Anzani motorcycle-based engine with which he builds his first attempt at a working machine in the courtyard of his house. Not only was that first machine very crude and not much to look at, but it did not generate enough lift to take off even sans pilot. A second attempt with a two engined design a year later actually takes off in a meadow behind his house but Igor deems the vibration unacceptable. Frustrated by his setbacks, Sikorsky turns his attention to fixed wing aircraft design.

In 1910 he partners with Fedir Bylinkin (it seems mostly because Bylinkin had a really big shed) and they produce two airplanes in quick succession: BiS-1 barely manages to hop as it was saddled with the anemic original Anzani engine, BiS-2 finally achieves flight and is airborne. After that Bylinkin and he part ways and Igor goes on to build a couple of new planes around more Anzani motorcycle engines: the 35 horsepower S-3 and a biplane with a fifty horsepower air cooled engine which proved less than reliable and almost killed him. His next plane, the S-5 used a much more reliable German water cooled Argus engine, was a resounding success. It is on this aircraft that he gets his pilot license from the Russian authorities and goes on to set four Russian aviation records, for altitude (500 m/1,640 ft), distance (85 km/52.8 miles), speed (125 kmh/ 77.7mph) and duration (52 min.). His next design of this early period was the S-6B Biplane, which he designed and built as the chief aviation designer at the Russo-Baltic Wagon Works (R-BVZ), a transportation powerhouse in tsarist Russia that produced trains as well as airplanes. The S-6B was specifically designed for an international military aircraft competition held by the Russian government which it won, clearly propelling Sikorsky to the world stage as a premier aircraft designer.

His last aircraft design for R-BVZ would be one of the many firsts that he would accumulate over his career. Dubbed the 'Grand', the 1913 S-21 was the first multi-engine airplane in the world and had been inspired by the poor reliability of the motors available at the time. With a wingspan of 89 feet, four motors and almost 9,000lbs of weight, this luxurious monster featured an enclosed cabin, a salon with four upholstered chairs, a sofa, a toilet and even an exterior catwalk atop the fuselage for passengers to get some fresh air. The S-22 evolution of this design, dubbed the "ILia Mourometz" after a tenth-century Russian folk hero would be used as bombers, transports and reconnaissance aircraft in World War I.

Exile to the US

In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution brought Sikorsky's career to a grinding halt. The economy all but collapsed and he emigrated first to Paris and England, but disillusioned with his lot there, made his way to the United States in 1919. In the US he initially made enough for room and board by working on a small engineering project with the U.S. Army Air Service in Dayton, Ohio and after that ended, lecturing on Mathematics to Russian émigrés(since he knew no English) in the lower East Side of Manhattan . In 1923, mostly with capital scraped together by White Russians (nobody in the US knew who the hell he was) he created the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation on a farm near Roosevelt Field on Long Island. The first aircraft built was the S-29-A, the A for America, the world's first twin engine airplane capable of flying on one engine and the first all-metal aircraft.

Sikorsky had already created versions of his four motor airplane with pontoons that allowed it to land on water but his US built S-36, was the first practical amphibian plane or flying boat. In the 1920s, the short range of commercial airplanes and the lack of airfields in many exotic locations, made an amphibian airplane absolutely essential. Sikorsky's S-38, a nine passenger amphibian, was designed for Pan American Airlines, which in 1928 was the hot and brash brainchild of entrepreneur Juan Trippe to service its South American routes. Those routes were being scouted out by Trippe's most famous employee Colonel Lindbergh, who inaugurated airmail service between the United States and the Panama Canal Zone in 1929. Successful as the S-38 was, it would be completely eclipsed by the acme of Sikorsky's amphibious designs, the S-40, also known as the American Clipper and the subsequent S-42. Though eventually abandoned by Pan Am in favor of the longer range Martin M-130 seaplane, it was the spark that inspired the famous China Clipper and started the era of glamorous air travel.

Return to the helicopter

Once the challenge was gone out of the production of seaplanes, and perhaps a bit miffed at having seen his designs surpassed by others, Sikorsky returned to his first, best destiny. Though he begun work on the seminal VS-300 helicopter. The V stands for Vought, as in Lewis & Vought Corporation which in 1939 had merged with its sister division Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation under holding company United Aircraft Corporation with me still? 'kay. The VS-300 looked like an alien craft out of a cheesy sci-fi movie, a tubular frame wrapped in fabric, an exposed cockpit, and the now de rigueur single main rotor/tail rotor design with modern pitch and attitude control. Its first tethered flight was on September 14, 1939 and it did not achieve untethered flight until May 13, 1940. Sikorsky continued to refine the design and on May 6th, 1941 personally set a new helicopter endurance record, piloting the VS-300 for 1 and 32 minutes. The VS-300 however was to be only a development platform and after about 100 hours of flight, Sikorsky donated it to Henry Ford II for his Edison Museum (now known as the Henry Ford Museum) where it is still on display today. The VS-300 would spawn the R-4, which was the first production helicopter in history, flew missions at the tail end of World War II and became the Granddaddy to all modern helos. Sikorsky's 1931 patent on the helicopter ensured that his designs would be licensed all over the world for many years to come. My personal favorite of all the machines he would be personally involved in designing in subsequent years is the Sikorsky Skycrane.

Though today the image of the helicopter is unavoidably associated with war (consider the famous helicopter raid sequence set to the Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now, need I say more?), Sikorsky was proudest of the role his vehicle would play in search and rescue missions. A deeply religious man he also authored three books: Two religious tracts The Message of the Lord's Prayer, The Invisible Encounter and an autobiographical work entitled The Story of the Winged S in reference to the company's logo. He received many honors during his life and was actively involved in the company that still bears his name and continues to produce helicopters to this day. He died in October of 1972.


When I set out to write this wu, he struck me as a cool steampunk kind of guy. After reading some of his writings, he is very far from that. He actually strikes me as someone with little imagination but a fierce and stubborn determination to make things work. It takes all kinds though...

THE EMINENT RUSSIAN AIRCRAFT DESIGNER IGOR SIKORSKY ,http://www.vor.ru/Events/program11.html, 9/24/2004
SIKORSKY'S WINGS OF DESTINY, Igor Sikorsky Invented First Helicopter In Kyiv In 1909,Stanislav Tsalyk,http://www.artukraine.com/historical/sikorsky.htm, 9/23/2004
HISTORY OF IGOR I. SIKORSKY (Part 1),http://www.sikorskyarchives.com/part1.html, 9/24/2004
Igor Sikorsky,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Igor_Sikorsky, 9/24/2004
Our History,http://www.sikorsky.com/details/0,3036,CLI1_DIV69_ETI683,00.html, 9/24/2004

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