Early on the morning of January 3,1944, a series of explosions ripped through the hull of a U.S. Navy destroyer that lay at anchor two miles south of New York City. The blast shook the entire metropolitan area, rattling plates and awakening people as far away as Westchester County, twenty-five miles to the north. As the flaming vessel sank, a swarm of boats from the Coast Guard Station at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, converged on it and began evacuating the 163 survivors. Fifty or more sailors had suffered burns and other injuries, many of them critical. Doctors at Sandy Hook urgently needed blood plasma, but a bitter storm had virtually paralyzed ground transportation and ruled out any attempt to deliver it by airplane. At Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, however, Coast Guard pilot Frank A. Erickson took off in a Sikorsky R-4 helicopter. He landed minutes later at South Ferry, on the southern tip of Manhattan, to pick up forty units of plasma. Within fifteen minutes he was hovering in for a landing on the beach at Sandy Hook, and soon the plasma was rushed to nearby hospitals.
Two days later an editorial in the The New York Times hailed the “strange rotary-winged machine which Igor Sikorsky has brought to practical flight” and declared that “nothing can dim the future for a machine which can take in its stride weather conditions such as those which prevailed in New York on Monday.” Commander Erickson modestly shrugged off his emergency mission as a “routine operation,” but for Igor Sikorsky the flight of the R-4 proved the worth of an idea that had first possessed him more than thirty years before.
As a young man Sikorsky had built two helicopter prototypes, in 1909 and 1910. Neither one had made it off the ground, and he had not even tried to build another rotary-wing aircraft until the eve of World War II. In the meantime, however, he nevertheless managed to become one of the towering figures in the history of aviation. He built the world’s first four-engine airplane (which was also the world’s first long-range bomber) and a series of magnificent flying boats that shattered records and helped turn American civil aviation into a world-spanning commercial enterprise.
Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky was born in Kiev, Ukraine (then a part of Russia), on May 25, 1889, the youngest of four children. His father, Ivan Sergeiovich Sikorsky, was a successful and highly respected psychologist, author, and lecturer. His mother, Zinaida, was a medical-school graduate and maintained a lifelong interest in the works of Leonardo da Vinci. Among Igor’s earliest memories was one of his mother describing Leonardo’s designs for flying machines. The youngster was also fond of Jules Verne’s stories.
As a child Sikorsky constructed batteries, a small electric motor, and a model helicopter powered by rubber bands. Later he set up a makeshift chemistry laboratory in his bedroom, which the family maid refused to clean because of the noxious odor of his concoctions. Once he found an anarchist propaganda leaflet that explained how to build a bomb out of common drugstore supplies, and he set off impressive explosions in the family garden until his parents made him stop.
Sikorsky entered the Imperial Russian Naval Academy in St. Petersburg in 1903. Not wishing to pursue a naval career, he quit after three years to enroll at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute, following a semester’s study in Paris. Then, during a six-week stay in Germany with his father in the summer of 1908, he discovered his life’s work. In Germany he heard about Count Zeppelin’s fantastic dirigibles and the heavier-than-air powered flights of Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were then beginning an electrifying demonstration tour of Europe.
He resolved to design a flying machine of his own, one capable of “rising directly from the ground by the action of a lifting propeller” (as he wrote in his memoirs). In his hotel room in Germany he put together a four-foot propeller and found that it could achieve a lifting force of more than eighty pounds for every horsepower applied to it. Although he later realized that obtaining the same force per horsepower with a full-size model would require impossibly huge propellers, “I was convinced … that a practical helicopter could be produced even on the basis of the engines that were available at the time.”
Back in Kiev he conducted further research and studied the scant available literature on aviation. His sister Olga took an interest and offered him money to buy an engine and other parts. He interrupted his studies at the institute and in January 1909 visited the airfields near Paris, then the center of European aviation. There he met the famous aviator Louis Blériot and Capt. Ferdinand Ferber, a builder of pioneering gliders and airplanes who was the head of France’s infant military aviation operation.
Sikorsky told Ferber of his ambition to build a helicopter. (The word helicopter , from the Greek for “spiral wing,” was already current early in the century, long before such craft were made practical.) Ferber was not sanguine. “Do not waste your time on a helicopter,” he said. “The airplane will be far more valuable.” But the young man stuck to his plans. He enrolled in a newly organized and informally run aeronautics school to learn what he could from the French aviators. He asked one of the more accomplished pilots to recommend the best aircraft engine available. “There are no ‘best’ engines; they are all bad,” was the reply.
“Well,” Sikorsky said, “which one do you think is less bad than the rest?” The aviator advised him to choose the simplest one possible, reasoning that the fewer parts it had, the less could go wrong.
Sikorsky eventually settled on a simple three-cylinder 25-horsepower Anzani engine from France. He brought it with him back to Kiev, where he assembled his first aviation laboratory in a shed in his parents’ back yard. The little engine was sturdy, but it could not generate nearly enough power to make his first two helicopter prototypes fly. He learned a lot by tinkering with the machines, however, and found no reason in principle why he couldn’t eventually build a successful helicopter. “But by feeling rather than by exact knowledge,” he wrote, “I came to the conclusion that tangible success along this line was by no means around the corner.”
Meanwhile, he had already begun to turn his attention toward more conventional aircraft. He conducted preliminary experiments by mounting engines and propellers on two sleighs and driving them across snow. In April 1910 he rolled out his S-1, a simple biplane powered by a 15-hp Anzani engine. The plane taxied nicely and even jumped into the air for a few seconds with the help of a strong gust of wind, but like his first two helicopters, it lacked the power for true flight.
Sikorsky continued to toil away, supported by his sister, and his next model—the S-2, with a 25-hp engine—had just enough power to get itself airborne. Real success did not come until the spring of 1911, with completion of the S-5. After a number of cautious test hops, Sikorsky piloted the S-5 on a thrilling four-minute flight along a roughly circular course. “I went home remembering the joy and splendor of flying which I had felt for the first time, realizing that a real step had been made forward in my aviation activities.”
Before long he had built a three-seater biplane, the S-6, that flew at more than seventy miles per hour, breaking the world speed record for an airplane carrying a pilot and two passengers. In 1912 an improved version of that plane, the S-6-B, won first prize at a Moscow air exposition and earned Sikorsky the job of chief engineer with the aircraft division of the Russo-Baltic Wagon Company, based in St. Petersburg.
There Sikorsky set out to build a plane unprecedented in scale and design, the world’s first four-engine aircraft. Le Grand , as it became known, looked a bit like a trolley car with an eighty-eight-foot wingspan. In May 1913 Sikorsky, with a copilot and a flight mechanic, took the four-and-a-half-ton plane into the crisp, still air over St. Petersburg, navigating by the lingering glow of northern Russia’s famous “white nights.” In the enclosed cabin Sikorsky experienced the unfamiliar sensation of flying without a rush of air against his face. Instead of using what he called “bird sense,” he had to rely on sight and a small array of simple instruments. In later flights Sikorsky showed that a multi-engine plane could still fly even if one or more of its engines lost power.
He brought out his next large four-engine plane in mid-1913. While Le Grand had been an experiment, the Il’ya Muromets , named after a tenth-century Russian folk hero, was a fully operational transport aircraft. Its luxurious passenger compartment included four seats, a sofa, a table, and a small washroom. To prove its utility for long-distance transport, Sikorsky and a three-man crew flew a second version of the Il’ya Muromets seven hundred miles cross-country from St. Petersburg to Kiev in 1914. During the flight, which was completed in three segments over two days, Sikorsky and his crew had to deal with an engine fire and a fierce storm that sent the plane into a nearly fatal spin. Upon landing he was greeted with the news that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary had been assassinated in Sarajevo.
When war came, Sikorsky was put in charge of the production of military versions of the Il’ya Muromets . They saw action in hundreds of reconnaissance missions and long-range bombing raids. Eventually more than seventy planes were built for the military; they made a substantial contribution to Russia’s war effort. Sikorsky was quite active in production and flight testing, and the war years gave him his first experience with large-scale manufacturing. This phase of his aviation career came to an abrupt end in 1917, when Czar Nicholas was ousted and the Bolsheviks seized power.
Sikorsky, with his military connections and bourgeois background, decided he would be wise to flee the country, in February 1918, leaving behind almost all the money he had made, he traveled to France, where the French Air Force hired him to design a large bomber. The government accepted his plans, but the war ended before construction could begin. Facing limited opportunities in France, he boarded a steamer for America in March 1919. “The United States seemed to me the only place which offered a real opportunity in what was then a rather precarious profession,” he wrote. “I had been inspired by the work of Edison and Ford, the realization that a man in this country, with ideas of value—and I hoped that mine were—might have a chance to succeed.”
Success didn’t come easily. When Sikorsky arrived in America, surplus military aircraft had saturated the civilian market. The Army showed some interest in his plans for a bomber but could not afford to go beyond the design stage. For the next several years Sikorsky earned a marginal living as a teacher and lecturer to Russian immigrants in New York. In 1923 he and a band of fellow Russian émigrés, including the composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, managed to scrape together several thousand dollars to start the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation. At a makeshift factory on a chicken farm on Long Island, the company cobbled together an all-metal passenger plane called the S-29-A (the A stood for “America”), most of it built from scrap iron salvaged from a local junkyard. Sikorsky expressed his appreciation for his workers by allowing eight of them to join him on the first flight, even though he feared that the plane’s two 300-hp engines might not be able to handle the load. Indeed, after a slow takeoff from Mitchel Field, the S-29-A climbed to a hundred feet and then began to lose power. It barely missed some utility wires before crash-landing at a nearby golf course.
The repaired S-29-A, equipped with more powerful engines, attracted favorable publicity and a job transporting two baby grand pianos from New York to Washington, D.C., for five hundred dollars. However, no orders for more planes like it materialized. The company was reorganized as the Sikorsky Manufacturing Corporation and held on by selling smaller planes and an improved set of wings for the popular Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane, a military trainer that had been built in the thousands during the war. Sikorsky sold the S-29-A to Roscoe Turner, a barnstormer, who used it for chartered flights. Turner eventually sold it to Howard Hughes, who dressed it up as a German Gotha bomber in his movie Hell’s Angels . Hughes had the S-29-A set ablaze in midair and filmed it as it came down in a spectacular crash.
Sikorsky was reunited with his two sisters, Olga and Helen, when they fled the Soviet Union for America in 1923. They brought with them Sikorsky’s six-year-old daughter, Tania, the product of a short-lived marriage back home. The following year Sikorsky married a second time, to a Russian-born schoolteacher named Elizabeth Semion whom he had met during his days as a lecturer. They eventually had four children, all boys. One of the boys, Sergei, would grow up to join his father in an aviation career.
In 1926 Sikorsky set to work on his next large plane, the sixteen-passenger S-35, and interested the renowned French aviator René Fonck in it. Fonck wanted it to pursue the $25,000 prize that Raymond Orteig, a hotel magnate, was offering for the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic. To make the plane suitable for such long-range flight, Sikorsky added a third engine, enlarged the wings, and increased the fuel capacity.
Fonck’s promoters insisted that the transatlantic attempt take place before winter set in. Sikorsky wanted to make further tests and delay the flight until spring, but the promoters won out. On September 21 Fonck and his three-man crew boarded the S-35 at Roosevelt Field. As the big plane rolled down the runway, part of the auxiliary landing gear broke loose and dragged along the ground. The heavily loaded S-35 could not build up enough speed to take off. Thousands of spectators watched in horror as the plane rolled to the end of the runway, fell down an embankment, and disappeared from view. A moment later smoke and flames shot up from the edge of the airfield. Fonck and his copilot managed to escape; the mechanic and radio operator perished in the blaze.
Undeterred, Fonck ordered a new plane from Sikorsky, but in May 1927 a twenty-five-year-old airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh flew solo from Long Island to Paris in a single-engine “flying gasoline tank” called The Spirit of St. Louis . Fonck abandoned his plans. In the long run, however, Lindbergh’s flight indirectly helped Sikorsky. The excitement it generated gave commercial aviation a muchneeded boost. Confident that a vigorous market for longrange aircraft would at last emerge, Sikorsky embarked on the construction of not one but a batch of six 8-passenger twin-engine amphibious planes known as the S-36. Amphibious planes (which could touch down on land or water) and flying boats (which could touch down on water only) were quite popular from the late 1920s through the mid-1940s. Their chief advantage was that they could land on any decent stretch of calm water, so that long-range air travel did not have to wait for the building of airports with suitable runways. Also, most passengers felt safer when flying over water if they were in a plane that could float.
The S-38, an improved version of the S-36 that was completed in 1928, proved to be Sikorsky’s long-awaited break-through. Despite its bizarre, somewhat ungainly appearance, the amphibian performed superbly. The first ten S-38s sold quickly. So did the second ten. To keep up with the flood of orders, the company—now called the Sikorsky Aviation Company—relocated to a spacious, modern factory complex in Stratford, Connecticut. Facilities included state-of-the-art machinery, drafting rooms, a research laboratory, and a wind tunnel. Long Island Sound and the Housatonic River permitted convenient testing of Sikorsky’s seaplanes. Soon afterward the company became a subsidiary of the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation (now United Technologies).
The biggest customer for the S-38 was Pan American Airways, which eventually bought thirty-eight of the amphibians. Sikorsky Aviation and Pan Am collaborated on the design of the mammoth S-40, which the airline needed for the expansion of its Latin American air routes. When completed in 1931, the S-40 was the largest aircraft ever built in the United States. It carried up to forty passengers and weighed seventeen tons fully loaded. For the landing gear Sikorsky used shock-absorber springs designed for a medium-size railroad car. Pan Am’s president, Juan Trippe, dubbed the flying boat the American Clipper , a name that harked back to the speedy sailing ships of the nineteenth century.
A still-larger plane, the ocean-spanning S-42, was unveiled in 1934. It broke ten world records and was the first airplane to cross the Pacific, but as the decade wore on, the infrastructure for increasingly reliable long-range land planes began to grow, and the curtain came down on the era of great flying boats. With sales lagging, United Aircraft threatened to close down its Sikorsky division in 1938. Sikorsky won a stay of execution by making a startling proposal. Almost thirty years after his first aborted experiments at his parents’ home in Kiev, Sikorsky saw that the time was ripe for building a helicopter. United Aircraft green-lighted his project on the condition that it not cost too much. Sikorsky accepted the condition but insisted on keeping together his engineering team, which included a number of fellow Russian émigrés, including his cousin Igor Alexis (“Prof”) Sikorsky and the brothers Michael and Serge Gluhareff.
Others had been thinking about and working on rotary-wing aircraft for decades. The concept goes back at least as far as Leonardo da Vinci; one scholar has found a reference to a helicopter-like device in a Chinese manuscript from the fourth century A.D. As early as 1840 Sir George Cayley, a British scientist, sketched a rudimentary helicopter in his notebook. Back in 1907, two years before Sikorsky’s first attempts, Paul Cornu of France built a 573-pound craft in which he made the earliestknown powered vertical ascent. On his first flight Cornu hovered for twenty seconds several feet off the ground. Later he managed crude forward and backward movement, but he was never able to control it successfully. Another Frenchman, Louis Breguet, outdid Cornu the following year with a helicopter that struggled to a height of fifteen feet. That same year, however, the Wright brothers made their aweinspiring European tour, demonstrating the clear superiority and enormous potential of fixed-wing aircraft.
Like Sikorsky, Breguet turned to the manufacture of airplanes, with considerable success, and then took up the helicopter problem again. In 1936 Breguet and René Dorand’s Gyroplane climbed to a record-breaking 518 feet and set an endurance record of just over one hour, during which it flew a distance of 27 miles. The French Air Ministry funded further development, but when war in Europe became imminent, Breguet shifted to large-scale bomber production.
In Germany Heinrich Focke and Anton Flettner developed promising helicopters in the years leading up to World War II. Focke’s powerful Fa-223 Drache (Dragon) could fly at 115 miles per hour and climb to more than 23,000 feet. The German military ordered a sizable number of Focke helicopters as well as a thousand of Flettner’s agile Fl-282 Kolibri (Hummingbird), but Allied bombers interrupted production early in the war. German priorities shifted to more traditional, proven weapons, and the helicopters saw only limited service.
Virtually all the rotary-wing aircraft that had managed to get off the ground for even a few seconds had used multiple lifting rotors. That was a response to stability problems caused by torque, a central problem in helicopter design. As Isaac Newton observed, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so if a rotor spins one way, the fuselage will want to spin the other way. Early helicopter designs used two or occasionally even four lifting rotors, which together canceled out torque on the fuselage. Focke’s helicopters had two large rotors attached to outriggers on either side of the fuselage, while Flettner’s Kolibri employed two overhead rotors intermeshed in an eggbeater-like arrangement.
A notable exception to multiple-rotor design was the autogiro, developed by the Spaniard Juan de la Cierva in the early 1920s. Something of an aeronautical centaur, part airplane and part helicopter, the autogiro employed a single, unpowered rotor that turned in the airflow from the craft’s forward motion, thus providing lift. An airplanestyle propeller at the nose of the craft provided forward thrust, while short fixed wings offered additional lift. The rotor blades were allowed to flap, which provided counteracting torque.
The autogiro had advantages over ordinary airplanes: It could take off, climb, and land in a small space (though not quite vertically), and it could fly at low speeds that would send a conventional airplane into a stall. If its engine failed, an all-too-common occurrence in aircraft of that day, the autogiro’s rotor would turn as it fell, providing enough lift to allow a safe landing. It was inferior to a modern helicopter, though, because it could not climb as far, as fast, or as straight, and it could not hover with zero ground speed unless there was a wind to turn the rotor.
In the late 1920s an airplane manufacturer named Harold Frederick Pitcairn secured American rights to Cierva’s machine, instigating a brief autogiro craze. Businesses used them to garner publicity, newspapers flew reporters to special assignments in them, and the New Jersey Forest Service employed one to help fight forest fires. Pitcairn even tried to market his autogiro to the well-to-do as a way to rise above the roadbound masses. Soon, however, the Depression cooled autogiro fever. Cierva died in a plane crash in 1936.
Meanwhile, Sikorsky was at work on a rotary-wing aircraft that would in time prove much more versatile and successful than the autogiro. In 1931 he applied for a patent on a helicopter design that called for one main horizontal rotor plus a smaller vertical one at the tail for counteracting torque. The patent was granted in 1935, but the miserable state of the American economy at the time discouraged work on anything so speculative. By 1939, however, the promising efforts of European helicopter designers had made the project look credible. The U.S. Army Air Corps held a design competition for helicopters that year. Sikorsky lost to the Platt-Le Page Aircraft Company of Eddystone, Pennsylvania, but the Army’s interest made it clear that helicopters had a promising future.
The fifty-year-old Sikorsky plunged into his new endeavor with youthful enthusiasm. “It was a wonderful chance to relive one’s own life,” he said, “to design and construct a new type of flying machine without really knowing how to do it, and then climb into the pilot’s seat and try to fly it… without ever having flown a helicopter before!”
Sikorsky himself made the first test flight of the VS-300 helicopter a fortnight after fighting broke out in Europe, on September 14, 1939. (The VS stood for Vought-Sikorsky, the result of United’s merger of its Sikorsky and ChanceVought divisions.) The VS-30 presented a stark contrast with the huge, impressive flying boats with which Sikorsky had made his name. A spidery framework of tubular steel supported the rotors, a 75-horsepower engine, and a perilously exposed pilot’s seat. Gears cannibalized from a truck transmission transferred power from the engine to the three-blade main rotor. Though the VS-300 had a decidedly makeshift appearance, the arrangement permitted quick substantial modifications. At times extensive changes in the craft came so fast that harried mechanics called the VS-300 “Igor’s nightmare.”
On the first day of flight tests the VS-300 logged about ten seconds of flying time while tethered to heavy weights. Within a few months it could stay in the air for a minute or two at a time, hovering in place or moving slowly forward. The biggest problem was control. Under Sikorsky’s basic single-rotor configuration, the main rotor controlled both lift and direction. Lift was regulated by changing the pitch of all three rotor blades at once (“collective control”).
Thrust, for horizontal movement, was accomplished through “cyclic control,” in which the pitch of each blade changed throughout its cycle of rotation. The changing pitch varied the amount of lift on each blade as it rotated, making it rise and fall. As a result, any change in cyclic pitch would tilt the entire rotor’s plane of rotation, creating thrust in the direction of the tilt. Both cyclic and collective controls were adapted from similar techniques used in the autogiro.
The system looked good on paper, but transforming it into a workable aircraft was an engineering nightmare. After a sudden crosswind toppled the machine and damaged the rotor, Sikorsky experimented with an alternative configuration in which the main rotor controlled only upand-down movement, while two additional horizontal tail rotors raised the helicopter’s tail, tilting the main rotor to create forward thrust. Increasing the pitch of one horizontal tail rotor while decreasing the pitch of the other created a lift differential between the two rotors, allowing the craft to bank.
This version of the VS-300 made its first untethered flights in the spring of 1940, and soon afterward Sikorsky was able to pilot the craft through precision maneuvers. The VS-300 could hover steadily enough for a man on the ground to change wheels on the landing gear and deposit a suitcase in a basket mounted to the craft’s nose. Following an impressive public demonstration, Les Morris, the Connecticut commissioner of aeronautics, handed Sikorsky Connecticut helicopter license number one. (Morris would later join Sikorsky’s staff as a test pilot.)
Everything looked great until the president of United Aircraft, while reviewing movies of the VS-300 in action, pointed out that the helicopter flew in every direction except straight ahead. With characteristic unflappability, Sikorsky replied, “That is one of the minor engineering problems that we haven’t solved yet.”
The reason for the problem was that whenever a pilot flew the VS-300 forward in a certain range of speeds, the main rotor would blow turbulent air onto the tail rotors, making the whole aircraft shake violently. Forward flight became somewhat easier when the outriggers were lengthened to keep the horizontal tail rotors away from the main rotor downwash. The installation of oil dampeners on the main rotor also cut down on vibration from flapping.
When it saw the progress that Sikorsky had made, the U.S. Army Air Corps started getting more interested. Captain Hollingsworth Franklin Gregory, an Air Corps pilot who had been working with helicopters and autogiros for several years, visited Bridgeport in July 1940 and tried out the VS-300. “More than anything else,” Captain Gregory recalled later, “VS-300 reminded me of a bucking bronco. She was ornery. When I wanted her to go down she went up. When I tried to back her up she persisted on going forward. About the only thing she was agreeable to was getting down again and that probably was because she wanted to get fed and pampered by the mechanics and her maker.” Nevertheless, the VS-300 impressed Captain Gregory enough for him to recommend that the Army fund further development, and soon afterward Sikorsky was awarded a contract.
On May 6, 1941, reporters and photographers gathered at a field behind the Sikorsky plant to watch the VS-300 break the world endurance record for helicopter flight. “You will witness the most unspectacular event you have ever covered,” Sikorsky told the press. He took the VS-300 aloft to a stationary hover, where he remained for one hour, thirtytwo minutes, and twenty-six seconds, which was twelve minutes longer than Focke’s 1937 record with his Fa-61.
While the VS-300 had proved itself the unquestioned champion at hovering, it still moved forward too slowly. Sikorsky tried a third tail configuration, which returned lateral control to the main rotor but left fore and aft movement to a single horizontal tail rotor. As in both previous versions, a vertical tail rotor neutralized torque. The craft handled much more smoothly and reached speeds of up to seventy miles per hour.
But in negotiating with Sikorsky on the development of a military prototype, Captain Gregory insisted that all control be placed in the main rotor, because the simpler configuration would reduce drag and make the craft easier to operate. It would also require fewer moving parts, thus enhancing safety, reliability, and ease of maintenance. Beyond this requirement, the Army also wanted an enclosed cockpit and a passenger seat.
Work began on the Army helicopter while Sikorsky continued to modify the smaller VS-300, returning it to the original configuration: one main rotor and one antitorque rotor. The craft now flew smoothly in all directions—provided one knew how to fly it. Piloting a helicopter was far different from flying an airplane; its two control sticks and two pedals required continual use of both hands and feet.
Even as accomplished an aviator as Charles Lindbergh had trouble when he climbed into the cockpit of the VS-300. “I’ve never felt so completely out of my profession,” Lindbergh recalled years later. “I’d push the stick forward and nothing would happen. I’d push it forward more and, whoosh, the ship would surge ahead much faster than I wanted it to. Then I would ease back on the stick without any effect on the speed forward. I would pull back harder and, whoosh, movement reversed so fast I thought the tail would dig into the ground.” After sleeping on this experience, Lindbergh came back the next day and flew with little difficulty.
The XR-4, Sikorsky’s military prototype helicopter, began flight testing early in 1942. (The XR-I was a less successful helicopter developed by Platt-Le Page that was modeled after Focke’s dual-rotor designs; the XR-2 and XR-3 were modified autogiros.) The XR-4 was about twice the size of the VS-300 and had a 165-hp engine, a top speed of 75 mph, and a two-seat, dual-control cockpit enclosed in Plexiglas. At a demonstration for Army officers in April, Les Morris, the former Connecticut aviation commissioner, performed such stunts as lifting a bag of eggs from the hands of a secretary, then setting them on the ground so gently that none were broken. (A Sikorsky engineer then dropped one on a rock to show that they weren’t hard-boiled.) Later that spring Morris delivered the finished XR-4 to the Army by taking it on a five-day, 761-mile flight from Stratford to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. Sikorsky himself joined Morris for the last leg. The XR-4 was accompanied on its journey by a specially marked car on the ground, for guidance and in case emergency repairs were needed. As the strange craft made its way through the Mohawk Valley, over New York’s Finger Lakes, and across the breadth of Ohio, air-raid spotters had a field day; one reported that “some farmer’s windmill just flew by.”
By the end of World War II Sikorsky Aviation had turned out more than four hundred R-4, R-5, and R-6 helicopters. The machine proved its wartime mettle in March 1944, when Lt. Carter Harman, an Army pilot, flew a Sikorsky R-4 behind enemy lines to rescue an American pilot and three wounded British soldiers from a crash site in a Burmese rice paddy. There was talk of using helicopters for antisubmarine warfare, but the war ended before it could be tried.
Rescue missions became routine during the early months of the Korean War, when Marine and Air Force pilots flew Sikorsky S-SIs in the first helicopter evacuations of frontline casualties. (Later in the war the Bell 47, with its distinctive bulbous cockpit canopy, supplemented the S-51.) The rapid aerial evacuation of wounded troops to nearby MASH units shrank the mortality rate for soldiers with head and abdominal wounds from 80 or 90 percent to less than 10 percent. Larger Sikorsky helicopters dispatched masses of troops to and from combat zones.
Helicopters have since played key combat roles in conflicts from the Vietnam War to Operation Desert Storm, but Igor Sikorsky preferred to focus on the peaceful uses of rotary-wing aircraft. The large-scale death and misery brought about by the two world wars and the Russian Revolution prompted the inventor in 1947 to publish a book called The Invisible Encounter , a meditation on the human condition as seen in light of the story of Christ’s temptation in the desert. Such religious and philosophical musings were not new to Sikorsky, a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church; in 1942 he had published a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer.
Commercial use of the helicopter grew more slowly than Sikorsky had hoped. In the 1940s and 1950s some thought the helicopter might one day replace the automobile for commuting to and from the suburbs. In the mid-1950s the Civil Aeronautics Board predicted that within a decade four times as many passengers would be traveling by helicopter as were then flying by airplane. It didn’t happen, principally because the helicopter was, and remains, too expensive for routine transportation. It has proved to be practical or economical only for those uses to which it is uniquely suited: helicopters have become an indispensable tool for aerial rescue and observation, the rapid transport of trauma victims, and getting people and materials to and from places inaccessible to airplanes and ground vehicles. They have also been used for such sundry purposes as crop dusting, cattle herding, insect control, inspecting pipelines, and aerial photography.
“That was one of my dreams, to build this lifesaving machine,” Sikorsky once said. “The appeal is this: What kind of machine can give you unlimited freedom of transportation? When you walk you need a trail or something. A pack animal needs even a better trail. A horse wagon needs a road. The automobile needs a still better road. The railroad needs a track. Steamships need a waterway. Airplanes need big airports. If a man is in need of rescue, an airplane can come in and throw flowers on him and that’s just about all. But a direct-lift aircraft could come in and save his life.”
Sikorsky officially retired from Sikorsky Aircraft in 1957, at the age of sixty-eight, but he stayed on as a consultant, participating in the development of “skycranes,” powerful helicopters designed to lift heavy loads on hoists. He lived until 1972, long enough to witness the advent of supersonic jets and manned flights to the moon, and his aircraft operation continues to manufacture a variety of military and civilian helicopters.
During his life those around Sikorsky knew him not only as an engineering giant but as a man of unfailing politeness and endless patience. A 1943 Life article noted with surprise that “although he is a genius, he seldom goes into tantrums.” Despite his wealthy upbringing, he wore rumpled suits and in his later years drove a Volkswagen to work. His leadership always sparked great loyalty among his workers—in revolutionary Russia, in America during the Depression, and in his helicopter days. In his scant leisure time he enjoyed mountain climbing and exploring volcanoes.
Throughout his career Sikorsky had a reputation as a clear, disciplined thinker. But looking back on his life, he attributed his innovative accomplishments to something more, a “mysterious faculty” that he believed enables inventors, artists, and other creative individuals to grasp solutions to problems when available knowledge and information alone are insufficient. In addition to that faculty, he wrote in his autobiography, the successful creator needs the ability to distinguish between genuine insight and mere fancy. “The first may be considered as intuitive imagination, while the latter may be called day-dreaming and lead to failure and possibly tragedy.”
One might also credit his success to something popularly viewed in his adopted country as typically American, a dogged persistence and a refusal to be swayed by skeptics and naysayers. When his first helicopter experiments failed, rather than give up he turned his attention in a new direction. When the Revolution in Russia left him an indigent exile, he started over again from scratch, dauntlessly facing repeated defeats in his struggle to carve a niche in a moribund industry. And when the era of flying boats drew to a close, he turned the impending demise of his aircraft operation into an opportunity to fulfill his long-standing dream of a flying machine that could go straight up.