Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky

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(18891972), scientist, engineer, pilot, and entrepreneur.

Igor Sikorsky designed the world's first four-engined airplane in 1913 (precursor to the most successful bomber of World War I) and the world's first true production helicopter. His single-rotor design, a major breakthrough in helicopter technology, remains the dominant configuration in the early twenty-first century. The winged-S emblem still signifies the world's most advanced rotorcraft.

Born in Kiev, Russia, Sikorsky was the youngest of five children. His father, a medical doctor and psychologist, inspired him to explore and learn. He developed a keen interest in mechanics and astronomy. While still a schoolboy he built several model aircraft and helicopters, as well as bombs. After completing formal education in Russia and France, Sikorsky attracted international recognition in 1913 at the age of twenty-four when he designed and flew the first multimotor airplane. In 1918, Sikorsky decided to flee his native country: "What were called the ideals and principles of the Marxist revolution were not acceptable to me." He left Petrograd (St. Petersburg) by rail for Murmansk and from there boarded a steamer for England. Having lost all his savings, he arrived in England with only a few hundred English pounds.

He settled in the United States in 1919, eventually founding the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation, the forerunner of the Sikorsky Division of United Technologies. In the early twenty-first century the corporation manufactures helicopters for sale around the world. Continually designing aircraft, Sikorsky received many other patents, including patents for helicopter control and stability systems. He grasped the humanitarian advantages of helicopters over airplanes. "If a man is in need of rescue," he said, "an airplane can come in and throw flowers on him, and that's just about allbut a direct-lift aircraft could come in and save his life." In the 1930s, Sikorsky designed and manufactured a series of large passenger-carrying flying boats that pioneered the transoceanic commercial air routes in the Caribbean and Pacific.

See also: aviation


Cochrane, Dorothy. (1989). The Aviation Careers of Igor Sikorsky. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Hunt, William E. (1998). 'Heelicopter': Pioneering with Igor Sikorsky: Based on a Personal Account. Shrewsbury, UK: Airlife Pub.

Sikorsky, Igor Ivan. (1941). The Story of the Winged-S: With New Material on the Latest Development of the Helicopter; an Autobiography by Igor I. Sikorsky; with Many Illustrations from the Author's Collection of Photographs. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.

Spenser, Jay P. (1998). Whirlybirds: A History of the U.S. Helicopter Pioneers. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Johanna Granville

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Igor Sikorsky

The Russian-American aeronautical engineer, aircraft manufacturer, and inventor Igor Sikorsky (1889-1972) designed such famous aircraft as the flying clipper and was the major developer of the helicopter.

Igor Sikorsky was born in Kiev, Russia, where his father was a professor of psychology at St. Vladimir University. Following his graduation from the Naval Academy at St. Petersburg, he studied in Paris and at the Polytechnic Institute in Kiev. While in Germany in 1908, he heard of the dirigible flights of Count Zeppelin and returned to Paris to study aviation. At the age of 20 he built his first helicopter. He then turned to more conventional planes, and in 1910 his S-2 achieved some success. In 1913 he built the world's first four-engine plane, the Grand, which was adopted by the Russian army and used during World War I.

Sikorsky was not sympathetic with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and in 1918 left for Paris, where he lost money attempting to build his aircraft. In 1919 he came to the United States, hoping to find a broader opportunity to exercise his engineering talents. His initial experience was discouraging, and he was forced to take a teaching position in a school for Russian immigrants. Then, in 1923, he joined with other Russian refugees to form the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Company. The composer and concert pianist Sergei Rachmaninov was a large investor and became vice president of the new firm.

Within a few years the firm became a part of the giant United Aircraft and Transport Company. Sikorsky and his fellow Russians were excellent engineers but poor businessmen. In 1928 they began work on large flying boats for Pan American Airways and lost $1 million on the contracts. In 1929 Sikorsky sold 56 "aerial yachts" to wealthy subscribers, most of whom were deeply involved in the stock market. When the market crashed in October 1929, they defaulted and left Sikorsky in a difficult financial situation.

United took closer charge of Sikorsky's business but continued to support his work on flying boats, which culminated with the building of the S-42 Clipper Ship for Pan American. These were magnificent engineering achievements but still lost money for the firm. Their construction was abandoned in 1938. United, however, fortunately chose to support Sikorsky in a return to his early work on helicopters.

The helicopter had long been realized to be theoretically workable, and a number of people during the 1920s and 1930s, both in the United States and abroad, experimented with its design. In 1939 Sikorsky tested his VS-300, the first truly practical helicopter. His success lay partly in his use of propeller blades the pitch of which could be controlled so as to change the direction of flight. During World War II helicopters were not used until 1944, and their real contributions to both war and peace came only in the 1950s, when Sikorsky was one of the leading manufacturers in the field.

Further Reading

Sikorsky's autobiography is entitled The Story of the Winged S (1939). A full-length account of Sikorsky is Frank J. Delear, Igor Sikorsky: His Three Careers in Aviation (1969). A biographical chapter on him is in Robert M. Bartlett, They Work for Tomorrow (1943). His work is placed in context by John B. Rae in Climb to Greatness: The American Aircraft Industry, 1920-1960 (1968). Charles Lester Morris, Pioneering the Helicopter (1945), is an account by Sikorsky's test pilot. □

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Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky (sĬkôr´skē), 1889–1972, American aeronautical engineer, b. Kiev, Russia. He immigrated to the United States in 1919 and was naturalized in 1928. Sikorsky built and flew the first multimotored plane (1913) and established the world's endurance record for sustained flight in a helicopter of his own design (1941). He organized corporations to manufacture airplanes (in 1923, 1925, and 1928) and became engineering manager of the Vought-Sikorsky Aircraft Division of the United Aircraft Manufacturing Corp. He is best known for his work on the development of the helicopter. In 1968 he was awarded the National Medal of Science.

See his Story of the Winged-S (rev. ed. 1967) and Invisible Encounter (1947).

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Sikorsky, Igor Ivanovich (1889–1972) US aeronautical engineer, b. Russia. In 1913, he built and piloted the world's first multi-motored aircraft. Sikorsky is best known for his development of the helicopter.