Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky

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Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky


Russian-American Aircraft Designer

Today remembered as the father of the helicopter, Igor Sikorsky had three distinct aviation careers. During the birth of aviation, Sikorsky designed and constructed the first successful large four-engine airplanes. After immigrating to America following the Russian revolution, Sikorsky's company built large flying boats for long-range airline service. Not until 1938 did Sikorsky embark on the third of his aviation careers, beginning design work on the helicopters for which he became famous.

Igor was born in the Russian (now Ukrainian) city of Kiev, one of five children. His father taught psychology at the university and established a successful private practice. Igor's mother was also well educated. In one of Igor's earliest memories, his mother described Leonardo da Vinci's (1452-1519) designs for helicopter-like flying machines. Sikorsky spent three years studying at the Imperial Russian Naval Academy, then resigned in 1906 to pursue engineering. While visiting Germany in 1908, Sikorsky read his first account of the Wright brothers' flight. Recognizing his fascination, his older sister Olga offered Igor, then just 19, enough money to purchase an engine and some building materials. But the heavy engines of the time rendered his attempts to build a helicopter hopeless. Always persistent in the face of difficulties, Sikorsky instead designed an airplane and awaited the day when technological developments would make his helicopter dreams possible.

Sikorsky's success with airplanes was remarkable. In less than two years, by 1911, one of his planes set a world speed record. The planes were still frail, though. In one case, Sikorsky crash-landed after a mosquito was caught in his fuel tank and clogged the carburetor. But aviation progressed quickly. In 1913 Sikorsky constructed the first four-engine planes in the world. During World War I these massive planes became the first heavy bombers. Though the army initially found them almost useless, by 1917 the planes were quite successful. Several times they fought off attacks by five or more German fighter planes. No longer did mere mosquitoes endanger Sikorsky's aircraft. However, the Russian Revolution in 1917 ended Sikorsky's first career in aviation, forcing him to flee Russia for his own safety.

By March 1919 Sikorsky had arrived in New York City, ready to resume work in aviation. The end of the war led to hard times for an aircraft designer. While earning a meager living teaching math to other Russian immigrants, Sikorsky met Elizabeth Semion, and they were married in 1924. By 1923 Sikorsky was back on his wings, and 1928 marked the return of Sikorsky's success, as he became a United States citizen and sold the first of his flying boats to Pan American Airways. These designs culminated in the large "Clipper" planes that introduced long-range commercial air travel in the 1930s. However, again social turmoil over-came the technical innovations of Sikorsky's designs. By 1938 the Great Depression had dried up the market for large luxury flying boats, thus ending Sikorsky's second aviation career.

Fortunately, Sikorsky managed to keep his crack engineering team together as he entered his third aviation career, returning to his life-long dream: building a practical helicopter. By late 1939 the prototype VS-300 was flying. An infusion of military support led to the creation of the R-4, the world's first mass-produced helicopter. Though helicopters played little role in World War II, they were rapidly adapted to military, civilian, and industrial uses after the war. In 1950 Sikorsky accepted the Collier Trophy, one of aviation's highest awards, on behalf of the helicopter industry he had founded. Igor Sikorsky retired in 1957 but remained active as a spokesman for the helicopter industry. He died in 1972 in Easton, Connecticut.