Igor Sikorsky, the Man With the Impossible Dream of a Rotary-Wing Helicopter

September 3, 2019 Gary McCormick

Rotary-wing aircraft (or helicopters) are commonplace today—vertical-flight drones are even sold as children’s toys—so it’s easy to forget that powered hovering flight was once the far-fetched dream of a talented Russian engineer, Igor Sikorsky.

September 14, 2019, marks the 80th anniversary of Sikorsky’s first helicopter flight. Sikorsky Aircraft (now owned by Lockheed Martin) was founded in 1923 and has created helicopters for civilian and military use since 1939. These useful machines handle everything from tourism to search and rescue.

igor sikorsky helicopter sketch
Igor Sikorsky’s helicopter patent sketch, 1930. Courtesy of Igor I. Sikorsky Historical Archives, Inc.

“Sikorsky was born when the concept of a man-carrying aircraft was considered an impossible dream,” says Dan Libertino, president of the Igor I. Sikorsky Historical Archives. “He lived to see man walk on the moon. He was one of a small group of inspired pioneers who helped transform that impossible dream to reality.”

Sikorsky was born in Kiev, in what is now Ukraine, on May 25, 1889. As a young boy, he built and flew model aircraft and was fascinated by the aviation-related inventions of Leonardo da Vinci, particularly his “aerial screw,” a primitive 15th-century helicopter design. At age 12, Sikorsky built a rubber-band-powered, bamboo-and-tissue-paper model helicopter that actually flew. Sikorsky was 14 when the Wright Brothers ushered in the era of powered flight in Kitty Hawk, NC—an event that determined his future career path.

After three years at the Naval College in Kiev, Sikorsky studied mechanical engineering at Kiev Polytechnic Institute. While still a student, he traveled to Paris, which was then the home of aeronautical research in Europe.

Igor Sikorsky stands in front of the first model of the Ilya Muromets S-22 aircraft, winter 1913–1914. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Returning home in 1909 with a 25-horsepower Anzani engine, Sikorsky built his first full-size helicopter, with twin counter-rotating rotors. But the three-cylinder, 206-cubic-inch engine—the same type that powered Louis Blériot’s monoplane in the first flight across the English Channel—failed to lift the machine off the ground. Sikorsky’s second attempt in 1910 showed more promise, but while the machine could lift itself, the extra weight of a pilot (Sikorsky) kept the aircraft firmly fixed to terra firma.

Pushing his dreams of vertical flight to the background, Sikorsky turned to more conventional flying machines: fixed-wing biplanes. In early 1911, he developed his first practical aircraft, the S-5, which established four Russian aviation records: an altitude of 1,640 feet, a distance of 52 miles, a duration of 52 minutes, and a ground speed of 77 mph.

Sikorsky then developed a string of successful fixed-wing aircraft, both biplane and monoplane designs. Most notable during this period were the S-21 through S-27 models, massive multiengine aircraft. The S-21 was the first four-engine aircraft ever flown and the first with an enclosed cockpit and cabin.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution, Sikorsky fled to Paris in 1918 and started on the design of a large bomber aircraft for the United States, but the Armistice of November 11, 1918, put an end to that job. Emigrating to the United States a few months later, he continued working on fixed-wing-aircraft designs under the auspices of his new company, the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation.

The company’s designs were among the aircraft that helped Pan American Airways pioneer air routes around the world. Among them were both land-based and amphibious aircraft—including the Clipper series, which carried upward of 40 passengers.

Although the Clipper designs were produced through 1942, by 1938, Sikorsky had turned back to his dream of vertical flight. The first practical helicopter was the VS-300, designed by Sikorsky and built by what was now the Vought-Sikorsky Aircraft Division of the United Aircraft Corporation.

It was the first helicopter to incorporate a single main rotor for lift and a tail rotor to control yaw. The craft made its first flight—tethered for safety—on September 14, 1939, at the company’s plant at Stratford, CT, with Sikorsky himself at the controls.

Igor Sikorsky pilots the VS-300 during the first helicopter flight on September 14, 1939. Courtesy of Igor I. Sikorsky Historical Archives, Inc.

Igor Sikorsky with his second helicopter, the H-2, in Kiev in 1910. Courtesy of Igor I. Sikorsky Historical Archives, Inc.

Igor Sikorsky’s pilot license. Courtesy of Igor I. Sikorsky Historical Archives, Inc.

Igor Sikorsky with Orville Wright upon delivery of the first helicopter (XR-4) to the US Army at Wright Field in 1942. Courtesy of Igor I. Sikorsky Historical Archives, Inc.

The key to vertical flight, Sikorsky had discovered, was the ability to vary the pitch of the rotor blades. Just as fixed-wing aircraft used variable-pitch propellers to produce the most efficient thrust (similar to the transmission in an automobile), controlling the pitch of the main rotor enabled vertical flight.

After the successful flight of the VS-300, Sikorsky’s helicopter designs advanced rapidly. Sikorsky designed and built increasingly sophisticated and capable helicopters whose uses ranged from scout and reconnaissance applications to attack, combat transport, and heavy-lift designs.

Even after Sikorsky retired in the late 1950s, his persistence and drive to design and engineer persevered—he stayed on as a consulting engineer and kept regular office hours for many years. The aviation pioneer died at his home on October 26, 1972, at 83 years old.

It is difficult to imagine modern civil and military aviation without the helicopter. “All US military branches and military and commercial operators in 40 nations fly Sikorsky helicopters,” says Mike Ambrose, vice president, Sikorsky Engineering and Technology. “We are increasing range, speed, safety, maneuverability, and capability to allow for effective operation in challenging and evolving environments.”

Helicopters’ vertical-flight capability makes them perfect for various roles, from sightseeing aircraft hovering above waterfalls on tropical islands to rescue aircraft pulling stranded sailors from sinking ships. They’re also useful as flying cranes that lift machinery to the tops of buildings; attack aircraft that support ground troops; and transports for soldiers, wildland firefighters, and disaster-relief workers. In 2018 alone, Sikorsky aircraft saved 1,636 lives. And the company has been working on technology for autonomous or optionally piloted aircraft since 2013.

“Our culture of innovation can be attributed to Igor and our talented teams who have followed his example,” Ambrose says. “Innovations we are working on today extend Igor’s legacy of bringing people home safely from everywhere, every time.”

The recent 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission was a reminder of the significance of the helicopter in history. It was a Sikorsky SH-3D “Sea King” helicopter that plucked the Apollo 11 astronauts from their capsule as it floated in the Pacific Ocean. Other Sikorsky aircraft performed similar pickups throughout the history of the US space program in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

igor sikorsky helicopter apollo 11 recovery mission
Astronaut Neil Armstrong is hoisted by helicopter 66—a Sikorsky SH-3D Sea King—during recovery operations of Apollo 11 astronauts on July 24, 1969. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington DC. Photo by PH2 Milt Putnam, USN.

Without helicopters’ unique skills, splashdown recovery would have been impractical, if not downright unfeasible. Helicopters have made possible feats that could not have been achieved any other way. And it all traces back to the dreams of a 20th-century Russian teenager with the farsighted vision of a Renaissance genius.

“Igor’s legacy is in everything we do here at Sikorsky,” Ambrose says. “Igor is revered here. His determination, imagination, and sense of purpose is present throughout manufacturing areas, in our engineering labs, and in each helicopter that leaves the hangar. Saving lives was exactly what Igor Sikorsky wanted the helicopter to do, and every day, Sikorsky employees are proud to make machines that can save lives.”

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