Igor Sikorsky: Father of the Helicopter & Ukrainian Technology Hero


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Igor Sikorsky is an outstanding example of the intelligence, vision, faith, and persistence of the Ukrainian people. His life-long passion and purpose have transformed the lives of countless people around the world.

Igor Sikorsky Early Life

Igor Sikorsky was born into a highly educated family and was given many opportunities to dream, learn, and experiment with new ideas at a young age. As the youngest of five children, Igor was born in 1889 in Kyiv to Ivan Sikorsky (professor of psychology at the prestigious Saint Vladimir University- now Taras Shevchenko National University) and Mariya Sikorskaya, a physician who homeschooled Igor. Early in his life, Igor had a thirst for knowledge and was fond of Lionardo da Vinci’s work and the stories by Jules Verne.

Igor’s father was highly involved in the European academic community and made numerous trips to Western Europe throughout Igor’s life. In 1900, Igor traveled with his father to Germany. While traveling with his father, Igor became interested in natural sciences. After returning to Kyiv, Igor built a small helicopter powered by a rubber band.

“According to recognized aero technical tests, the bumblebee cannot fly because of the shape and weight of his body in relation to the total wing area. The bumblebee doesn’t know this, so he goes ahead and flies anyway.” – Igor Sikorsky

Sikorsky was admitted to the Saint Petersburg Maritime Cadet Corp at 14 (1903). After two years of studying in Saint Petersburg, Igor decided to pursue engineering and resigned from the school in Saint Petersburg. After spending some time studying in Paris, Sikorsky returned to Ukraine and enrolled in the Mechanical College of the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute in 1907.

Inspiration and Sikorsky's First Aircraft

Igor spent the summer of 1908 with his father in Germany, where he learned of the Wright Brothers and Ferdinand von Zepplin’s rigid airships. Later in life, he noted how transformative this summer was for him. Igor stated, “Within twenty-four hours, I decided to change my life’s work. I would study aviation.”

At the time, few academic institutions were at the forefront of aviation engineering. With funding from his sister Olga, Igor moved to Paris (the center of aeronautics thought leadership at the time), allowing him to learn directly from the top minds in aerospace.

In 1909, Sikorsky returned home and built his first helicopter (the H-1) that had a 25-horsepower engine. By July of that year (at the age of 21), Sikorsky began testing the helicopter. With only a 162-kilogram lift (357 pounds), it was not powerful enough to lift the helicopter’s 207 kilograms (457 pounds) weight. By October 1909, Sikorsky felt his first helicopter would not achieve flight and stopped working on the project.

In 2010, Sikorsky built his second helicopter (H-2) that was able to take flight but was still not powerful enough to lift any load or the weight of a pilot. After the fact, Igor made an interesting comment, “I had learned enough to recognize that with the existing state of the art, engines, materials, and – most of all – the shortage of money and lack of experience… I would not be able to produce a successful helicopter at that time.” Sikorsky recognized that the lack of technology development had yet to reach the needed performance. Rather than giving up dreams of helicopter flight, he waited until the needed development in materials and engine performance improved to the point that helicopters could be viable.

Early Leadership in Airplane Engineering

“At that time [1909], the chief engineer was almost always the chief test pilot. That had the fortunate result of eliminating poor engineering early in aviation.”

Overlapping his work on his second helicopter (the H-2), Sikorsky designed and built his first airplane (the S-1). Using a 15-horsepower engine, this first plane was not able to fly. Sikorsky’s second plane (the S-2) with a larger 25-horsepower engine first flew on June 3rd, 1910, barely making it off the ground. Igor learned from this first flight and heavily modified the airplane before reaching an altitude of “60 to 80 feet” on his second flight on June 30th, 1910. Although Sikorsky’s second flight achieved notable height, the plane stalled, crashing into a ravine.

Using the S-2 craft, Sikorsky received his pilot’s license through the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), issuing license number 64 from the Imperial Aero Club of Russia in 2011.

Later, Sikorsky demonstrated an updated version of the S-2 and crashed after the engine stalled. After the crash, Sikorsky discovered that a mosquito had been pulled into the carburetor preventing the engine from receiving fuel. After the crash, Igor recognized the need to mitigate the risk of the engine failing leading to the idea of multiple engines on an aircraft. Sikorsky noted that one engine could fail in a multi-engine plane, yet the aircraft can still safely land with the remaining engine. This concept is still used today in aircraft design around the world.

ukrainian Technology

World War 1

After Sikorsky’s early success with the S-2, he rapidly grew within the Imperial Russian aeronautics industry. In 1912, Sikorsky accepted the Chief Engineer of the aircraft division of the Russian Baltic Railroad Card Works. Sikorsky created the S-21 (Russky Vityaz) with a two-engine configuration early in this new role. Shortly after, he reconfigured this plane to include four engines and renamed the plane “The Bolshoi Baltisky (The Great Baltic).”

Although the S-21 was conceived as a large passenger plane (complete with wicker chairs for passengers), military leaders quickly recognized the plane’s potential within a war context. When Imperial Russia entered World War 1 in 1914, orders were placed for numerous S-21 planes. They were fitted with the world’s first armor used in airplanes and were the backbone of the world’s first bomber unit (“the Squadron of the Flying Ships.”)

The Rise of an Aviation Empire

Sikorsky Manufacturing

After World War 1, Sikorsky struggled in Imperial Russia. For a short time following the war, he worked for the French on various projects. However, he was marked for assassination by the Bolsheviks as they gained power across the country. Sikorsky fled to France and onto the United States in 1919.

In 1923, Sikorsky formed the Sikorsky Manufacturing Company in New York. Igor turned to several friends in the Imperial Russian military to fund the company. The composer Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of Sikorsky’s early investors in the United States.

Early in the history of Sikorsky Manufacturing Company, Igor designed and built the United State’s first twin-engine plane- the S-29, which could carry 14 passengers at up to 115 miles per hour. Although the performance was behind that of some military planes at the time, it was reasonable enough to gain the respect of Igor in the United States.

After becoming a citizen of the United States, Sikorsky moved his company to Stratford, Connecticut. Later that year, United Aircraft and Transportation (now United Technologies Corporation) acquired the company in 1929.

Sikorsky was gifted in recognizing business challenges in addition to engineering problems. Although the airplane industry was rapidly growing at the time, there was a lack of runways. Sikorsky believed that if they built planes that could take off and land on water, they could open new business opportunities. Sikorsky developed and built the S-42 “Clipper”- the flying boat that Pan Am used for transatlantic flights.

The World's First Helicopter

While working inside United Aircraft and Transportation, Igor Sikorsky continued to work on the idea of a vertical takeoff vehicle. In 1919, Sikorsky filed a patent for a direct lift amphibian aircraft that would provide an air cushion below the craft powered by a compressor combined with smaller propellers for thrust.

In 1931 (thirty years after making his first helicopter model powered by rubber bands in Kyiv), Sikorsky filed a direct-lift vertical takeoff aircraft patent. (Patent Number: 1,994,488).  He achieved the first helicopter flight on September 14th, 1939, with his Vought-Sikorsky VS-300 vehicle from these early designs.

Through numerous tests with the VS-300 vehicle, Sikorsky then designed the R-4 helicopter, the world’s first mass-produced helicopter, in 1942.