Thursday, October 26, 2006
Igor Sikorsky Dies, October 26, 1972
Today in 1972, Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky died. Sikorsky is best remembered as the man who introduced the world to the single rotor helicopter, the kind that we most often see today in the skies above us .
Sikorsky was born in Kiev, Russia, on May 25, 1889, He developed an early interest in aviation, a hobby that was encouraged by his mother, who was a doctor, and his father, a psychology professor.
In 1908, Sikorsky and his father visited Germany. During the trip, he saw a picture of the Wright brothers and their famous aircraft. Within a day, he had decided to study and work in the young aviation field. He left his studies at the Naval War College in St. Petersburg before graduating and headed for Paris, which was then the center of aviation research in Europe. He was soon studying aerodynamics.
While in Paris, Sikorsky became known to many of the men who would later become great names in aviation - Bleriot, Ferber, and others. Despite advice to the contrary from these and other experienced men, Sikorsky announced plans to build a helicopter. Having absorbed all the knowledge he could in Paris, he headed back to Kiev. His early prototype models for a helicopter failed, mainly due to a lack of power and poor design of the rotary wing. He eventually set his experiments aside and began concentrating on traditional, fixed-wing aircraft.
Sikorsky’s first success came with the S-2, the second fixed-wing plane of his design and construction. His S-6-A received the highest award at the 1912 Moscow Aviation Exhibition and in the fall of that year the aircraft won for its young designer, builder and pilot first prize in the military competition at Petrograd.
In 1912, Sikorsky’s success led to a position as head of the aviation subsidiary of the Russian Baltic Railroad Car Works. In this position, as a result of a mosquito-clogged carburetor and subsequent engine failure, he conceived the idea of an aircraft having more than one engine -a most radical idea for the times. With the blessings of his parent company, he embarked on an engineering project which gave the world its first multi-engine airplane, a four-engined creation called "The Grand." The revolutionary aircraft featured such things as an enclosed cabin, a lavatory and upholstered chairs. His success with "The Grand" led him to design an even larger aircraft, called the Ilia Mourometz, named after a legendary 10th Century Russian hero. More than 70 copies of military version of the aircraft were built for use as bombers during the First World War.
The October Revolution put an end to Sikorsky's career in Russian aviation. He emigrated to France but was unable to find a suitable position there. Seeing little opportunity elsewhere in Europe, Sikorsky emigrated to the United States in 1919. After a fruitless search for some position in the fledging American aviation industry, Sikorsky turned to teaching. He lectured and taught in New York, mostly to fellow immigrants. In 1923, a group of students and friends who knew of his reputation in prewar Russia pooled their meager resources and launched him on his first American aviation venture, The Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corp. One of his biggest early supporters was Sergei Rachmaninoff, the famous composer and conductor. Legend has it that at his first meeting with Sikorsky, Rachmaninoff wrote the aviation pioneer a check for $5000.
The first aircraft built by the new company was the S-29-A (A for “America”), a twin-engine, all-metal transport, a forerunner to the modern airliner. A number of aircraft followed but the company achieved its most significant success with the twin-engine S-38 amphibian, which Pan American Airways used to open new air routes to Central and South America.
With his career in aviation secure, Sikorsky once again turned to the helicopter. Over the years, he had worked the problems of the rotary wing over and over in his mind, filling up notebooks with ideas and solutions. Work soon began on a prototype, and on September 14, 1939, Sikorsky hovered his VS-300 a few feet off the ground. It is important to note that the VS-300 was not the first rotary winged aircraft to fly. However, it was the first single rotor design, a design that would become the world standard and remain with us to the present day. 95% of all helicopters manufactured since 1939 have been based on Sikorsky’s single rotor design.
During the Second World War, Sikorsky developed the R-4, the first helicopter to be mass produced. They were used by all branches of the US military as well as Great Britain’s Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. The R-4 was not in service very long and was eventually replaced by the S-51.
During the second half of the 20th century, the helicopter became a familiar sight throughout the world. They were and continue to be used in countless applications: transport, cargo carrying, medical evacuation, fire-fighting...the list goes on and on. Sikorsky was most proud of the helicopter’s role as a life-saving tool during times of war and peace.
Sikorsky officially retired at the age of 68 in 1957, but remained at the company in an advisory role. He never left. On the day before his death at the age of 83, he was at his company desk as he had always been, looking for a solution for the next challenge of aviation.