Probably no name in Connecticut is more synonymous with aeronautics than that of Igor Sikorsky (1889–1972), the Russian-born pioneer in helicopter and vertical-lift aircraft and founder of the Statford-based aviation company that bears his name. Considering his impact on both state industry and the field of aeronautics in general, it must have seemed only fitting to include this profile of Igor Sikorsky, titled "That Magnificent Man and His Flying Machines," in the very first issue of Connecticut Magazine, dated Oct./Nov. 1971.
This article is being posted to the web in May 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
That Magnificent Man and His Flying Machines
“He can soar with the mystics, yet come right back to the practical..." wrote Anne Morrow Lindbergh about aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky whose achievements have enriched all of mankind.
By Frank Delear
No stranger sight had been seen in the skies of Connecticut: The big S-60 Skycrane helicopter, looking like some giant insect, rose almost vertically from the flight field of Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford Beneath its spindly fuselage hung a steel platform, attached to the fuselage by cables. Completing the bizarre scene were four helmeted men who sat strapped into bucket seats that were bolted to the platform. It was their mission to study the vibration qualities of the platform which actually was the floor of a van, or pod, yet to be completed, in which the Skycrane would carry passengers or cargo.
When this strange assemblage reached an altitude of 1,500 feet above the adjacent Housatonic River, one of the men was seen to release his seat belt, stand up and, to the consternation of his companions, walk calmly to the rear of the narrow platform. Satisfied that the vibration levels at the rear were as pleasantly low as those in the seat area, he strolled back and buckled himself once more into the safety of his seat.
The year was 1960. The nonchalant stroller was Igor Sikorsky, even then well into his retirement years, but still doing what came naturally — probing with quiet courage the aerial mysteries that had intrigued him for a lifetime. Had his companions on the platform known more of his background their consternation would likely have been less. For this was the same Igor Sikorsky who, nearly a half century before, had braved aerial perils that made the platform walk look no more hazardous than crossing a living room to adjust the TV set.
Consider only a few. In 1914 Sikorsky made an epic 800-mile flight from St. Petersburg, in Russia, to Kiev in his four-engined biplane, the Ilia Mourometz, an incredible craft which was then the world's largest airplane. Before that trip was over he and his three crewmen had survived three badly overloaded takeoffs, an engine fire in flight (two of the crew climbed out on a wing to beat out the flames with their overcoats), a forced landing, heavy rain, turbulence, hours of blind flying with the most primitive of instruments, and a tailspin from which the ship recovered with only seconds to spare. Any one of these could have finished the flight — and the crew. For added kicks, Sikorsky at one point climbed to a catwalk atop the fuselage and, literally standing in the sky, surveyed the breathtaking scene as the plane cruised just above the clouds a mile above the earth. He had, it seemed, compressed a lifetime of flying into a single day.
Igor Sikorsky has had three separate careers in aviation, a feat probably unmatched in aeronautical annals. Aside from that, what manner of man is he? Superlatives abound when people answer that question. Says his longtime friend, Charles Lindbergh: "If you selected the outstanding figures in aviation, Igor would be a strong contender for the top. Also, as a man, not just an aviation pioneer, he's one of the greats of his time. Part of his greatness lies in his extraordinary combination of intuition with science and engineering; he mixed mysticism in with an aircraft design.”
Adds poet-author Anne Morrow Lindbergh: “The thing that's remarkable about Igor is the great precision in his thought and speech, combined with an extraordinary soaring beyond facts. He can soar out with the mystics, yet come right back to the practical, to daily life and people. He never excludes people. Sometimes the religious minded exclude people or force their beliefs on others. Igor never does."
The incomparable Jimmy Doolittle says flatly, “Igor Sikorsky is a genius. He is not only intelligent but wise, both very important attributes in the decision-making process. He is a good man; his life and character exemplify those essential basic virtues and values which, in today's complex society, are sometimes forgotten. He believes implicitly in a Divine Creator. He is sure that a Universe as vast and orderly as ours could not have 'just happened.' He lives by the Golden Rule. He is thoughtful of others. He is a gentle person who instinctively does the kindly, the right, thing. He is honest with himself and with others. With such integrity one is a whole man."
Former U.S. Senator George Murphy, meeting and hearing a talk by Igor Sikorsky for the first time, was moved to these extemporaneous words: “As long as we have men like Mr. Sikorsky, men of imagination and determination, free men — free to imagine, free to achieve, and free to apply their knowledge — there are no problems in this poor, troubled world of ours that, if we try hard enough and work long enough, we won't be able to solve."
In 1953, the then Secretary of the Air Force, Thomas K. Finletter, likened Sikorsky to the Wright Brothers and a few other pioneers. In presenting Sikorsky the National Defense Transportation Award, he told the audience: “Mr. Sikorsky is a milestone in the history of aviation, an equal giant and pioneer. Look upon him well and remember him."
Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky was born May 25, 1889 in Kiev, in the Russian Ukraine, an ancient city often called "The Mother of Russia." He was the youngest of five children. His father was Dr. Ivan A. Sikorsky, psychiatrist, college professor and author of about 100 books, chiefly on child psychology. His mother was a medical school graduate. Influenced by his parents, Igor showed an early interest in science, especially aviation. He built and flew model aircraft; he learned early of Leonardo DaVinci’s theory of the flying screw. He was 14 when the Wright brothers made their historical flight at Kittyhawk, N.C., an event that eventually decided his career. He spent three years at the Naval College in St. Petersburg, decided that military life was not for him, and was a student at the Mechanical Engineering College of the Polytechnic Institute of Kiev when he determined to build a helicopter.
He went to Paris, then the aeronautical center of Europe, where he met some of the early names of aviation, men like Louis Bleriot, first to fly the English Channel. He returned to Kiev with a 25-horsepower Anzani engine, and built his first helicopter in 1909, his second in 1910. The second did what the first could not — it proved able to lift itself — but it could not sustain the weight of a pilot. It was just as well, for the crude craft lacked both stability and control. He decided to try fixed-wing airplanes.
In 1910 he made his first flight in an airplane of his own design and construction, teaching himself to fly by hopping the ship along a pasture in ever longer leaps. He corrected his designs and flying techniques as he went, suffering several crashes from which he walked away with only minor scratches.
In 1913 he defied the experts by building and flying the world's first four-engined plane, The Grand, which included such luxuries as an enclosed cabin, a washroom, upholstered chairs and a balcony In the front for sightseeing. The Grand was followed by a larger plane, the Uta Mourometz, in which Sikorsky made the historic and hectic flight to Kiev and back, a round trip of 1,600 miles. Military versions of the Mourometz proved highly successful as bombers in World War I. Seventy-three were built and only one was shot down over enemy territory. Sikorsky's big planes were the forerunners of large multi-engined transports which one day were to span the globe, linking nations and continents. For a year and a half Sikorsky was the only pilot in the world who had taken off and landed a four-engined airplane.
The Russian Revolution ended Sikorsky's first career in aviation. When he left his homeland at the age of 29, he gave up a fortune of half a million dollars, all earned by ingenuity and hard work. He reached the United States in 1919, after brief stops in England and France, with no job, scarcely any knowledge of the language, and only $600 between him and destitution.
"I came to America,” he said recently, “because I hoped to find a chance for free, creative work. I found this freedom and to my mind it still exists."
Questioned in 1967 about his views on the relative values of teamwork and individual effort in science and research, he replied, “Certainly teamwork enters more than ever before. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the work of the individual still remains a very important factor, still remains the spark that moves mankind ahead even more than teamwork. Teamwork comes into existence after the spark, the intuitive spark of a living man, starts something. Then later comes the teamwork to give a bigger body to the little soul which he created.”
Failing to find a job in aviation, Sikorsky gave lectures to Russian immigrant groups to earn money for food and a room. But he dreamed of another aviation career, and in 1923 formed the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation on a chicken farm in Roosevelt Village, Long Island. The first aircraft built was the S-29A, (the A for America) a twin-engined transport built of parts collected from junkyards and five-and-ten-cent stores. The plane, overloaded and underpowered, crash-landed on a golf course in its first flight. It was repaired, more power added, and went on to a successful career, becoming the forerunner of the twin-engined, all metal transports which in the 1930s brought air travel to the United States. The S-29A carried 14 passengers and cruised at 100 miles an hour.
More planes followed, the most successful being the S-38 amphibian with which Pan American Airways, with Lindbergh as pilot, blazed new air trails to Central and South America. In 1929 the Sikorsky company became a division of United Aircraft Corporation, moving into a new plant in Stratford, Conn., adjacent to the Bridgeport Municipal Airport on the site of the present Avco-Lycoming plant. There, at the mouth of the Housatonic, Sikorsky found the deep water of Long Island Sound for flying boats and the nearby airport for land-based planes. It was exactly what he was looking for in a search that had covered Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Then followed the famous Sikorsky Flying Clippers — the 40-passenger S-40s which carried air routes deep into South America, and the sleek S-42s which pioneered commercial air transportation across both the Atlantic and Pacific.
By 1938, with the pioneering of transoceanic routes over, Sikorsky turned again to the problems of vertical lift aircraft, and thus began his third aviation career. The VS-300 helicopter (VS for Vought- Sikorsky, for the two United Aircraft divisions had been joined in 1938) was begun in early 1930 and made its first flight Sept. 14, 1939. The VS-300 actually dated back to 1929 when Sikorsky decided that a successful helicopter was possible. In 1931 he applied for a helicopter patent that incorporated most of the features of the VS-300. There was one main lifting rotor and a small vertical rotor at the rear to counteract torque, an arrangement which exists to this day on 90 percent of the world's helicopters. The VS-300, now housed at the Ford Museum, Dearborn, Mich., set a world endurance record of one hour, 32 minutes on May 6, 1941, with Igor Sikorsky at the controls.
In 1943, at a plant on South Avenue in Bridgeport, the Sikorsky division began manufacture of the world's first production helicopter, the R-4, for the Army Air Corps. From that point on the story is well known — the growth of a whole new industry, which has spread worldwide and has produced thousands of rotorcraft for a myriad of civilian and military jobs. "Before the VS-300,” an industry leader once remarked, "there was no helicopter industry. After it there was." With the helicopter, Igor Sikorsky revived his youthful dream and in so doing gave the world a new kind of flying.
Today, in his 83rd year, Igor Sikorsky looks back on a life which seems almost too rich in achievement for one man. The honors he has received, some among the highest in aviation, now number almost 100. In a scroll given him on his retirement as engineering manager in 1957, his associates said, in part: "His deeply religious and humble nature, his strength of purpose, and his humor have won him the respect and affection of all who know him. These qualities, and others reflecting nobility of soul, have brought to Igor Sikorsky the acclaim of men, the goods of the world and the satisfactions of the spirit. We wish him a continuation of these blessings which are so justly his."
The blessings did continue. Yet, as always, there have been trials. In recent years he has suffered failing eyesight, and reading has been impossible for him the past two years. "I have someone read to me, and I think a great deal," he said the other day. "It was Pasternak, I think, who mentioned that there is a time when one must find support and strength within himself.” As usual, Igor Sikorsky has found that support and continues to look ahead. At his home in Easton he works steadily on his book "In Search of Higher Realities” which he hopes to finish this year.
He is the author of three books, "The Story of the Winged S,” an autobiographical account of his life in aviation, “The Message of the Lord's Prayer" ("one of the outstanding books of the year," said one reviewer) and "The Invisible Encounter," a plea for spiritual rather than material power as the great need of modern civilization. His unfinished book, he says, expresses the questions and disappointments raised in his mind by world history and current world events. It also seeks the true meaning and objective of the life of man, and concludes that these cannot be found within the limits of earthly existence. This, with his belief that man has the chance to choose freely between good and evil, leads to his views on a life after death. “Some individuals after death will undergo a process of being born again into a life of incomparably greater magnitude, splendor and happiness," he said recently. "The ones who will not qualify will go into an eternal sleep of final disintegration which will be as complete as if they had never existed. This idea is believed to follow exactly the ideas expressed by Socrates and I believe it to be the true meaning of the message of Christ. This general philosophy permits an optimistic outlook on the whole of Creation and to the turbulent earthly process of life which assumes a meaning."
Igor's sister, Olga, once wrote a biography of her father. A few lines deserve repeating in any article on Igor, for they apply to son as well as father: “On his face there always lay the imprint of serious thought and at the same time the witty, kind- hearted joke and smile were customary. His speech was expressive, definite, lacking in exaggerations. His mind was always in a condition of deep attention, his spirit in full peace and tranquility, no one ever saw him irritated, much less angry."
Today Connecticut’s senior aeronautical citizen, a consultant for the company which bears his name, shrugs off his accomplishments with characteristic modesty. “If I had not done this someone else would have,” he says. "So I do not overestimate the importance of anything I have done."
Igor Sikorsky, unique, original, unforgettable, a rightly termed "resident genius" of whom Connecticut — and the world — may justifiably "look upon well, and remember.
MORE ABOUT CONNECTICUT INVENTORS AND PIONEERS:
Alexander Pope build and mass-produced “Connecticut’s Original Electric Car” (August 2017)
Bridgeport's Gustave Whitehead: “First in Flight or Fake News?” (July 2017)
Silvio Antonelli recalls the early days of manned flight in “A Daring Man and His Flying Machine” (January 1981)
Meet the prolific Weston-based inventor of dozens of everyday things in “People: Stanley Mason” (September 1997)