In Igor Sikorsky’s childhood dream, he was walking along a narrow, luxuriously decorated passageway. On both sides were walnut doors, the floor was covered in an ornate carpet and a spherical electric light cast everything in a bluish haze. Sikorsky felt a slight vibration under his feet. He realized he was on a flying ship. As he reached the end of the corridor and was about to enter a decorated lounge, he woke up.
He was 11 and the year was 1900. At that time, Sikorsky was told that human-powered flight was impossible, then a prevailing belief. It was three years before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and decades before Sikorsky’s own groundbreaking flight of the first practical helicopter in Stratford in September 1939, 80 years ago this month.
Sikorsky grew up in Kiev, Russia (now part of Ukraine). His parents were doctors and helped inspire a love of science in their son. He designed his first helicopter model when he was 12 and had success before World War I designing aircraft for Czar Nicholas II. Then came the Bolshevik Revolution and Sikorsky fled Russia, eventually settling in the U.S. He founded the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corp. on Long Island but soon moved across the Sound to Stratford. The company logo was the striking Winged-S. One of the earliest aircraft it developed was the S-42 Clipper, an airplane known as a flying boat which was designed to take off and land on the water. It would be used by Pan Am for early transatlantic and transpacific passenger flights in the 1930s.
In 1931, during one of the first longer flights of the Clipper, Sikorsky experienced a profound sense of deja vu. “On the way back to Bridgeport, the pilot throttled the engines and gradually brought the ship down to a lower altitude,” he recalled in his autobiography. As Sikorsky walked toward the smoking lounge he got his first unhurried look at the interior of the plane during flight at night. “The cabin steward turned on the lights, and I stopped with a feeling of surprise … I realized, at that very moment, that I had already seen all this a long time ago, the passageway, the bluish lights, the walnut trimmings on the walls and doors, and the feeling of smooth motion.”
The scene from his childhood dream came to life in spectacular fashion. Sikorsky’s flying boats marked a short-lived but lavish chapter in aviation history. Ocean-spanning flights could take as long as 19 hours, but guests would be entertained by a lounge with food from top chefs and drinks, as well as seats that converted to sleeping bunks. However, the planes were difficult to fly and dangerous. During World War II, many new airports were built for military craft, and with more airports, the flying boat became obsolete. By that time, Sikorsky had already begun focusing on the aircraft that would come to be most closely associated with his name: the helicopter.
As far back as 400 B.C., children in China played with helicopter-like flying toys. In the 1480s in Italy, possibly inspired by this toy, Leonardo da Vinci created a design for an aerial screw. In 1863, Gustave de Ponto d’Amécourt, a French inventor, built two early helicopter models and dubbed them helicopteres, derived from the Greek word for spiral and pteron, or “wing.”
As the 1900s progressed, inventors managed to get their helicopters off the ground, but they were dangerous, impractical aircraft. Then Sikorsky developed the VS-300 in 1939. On Sept. 14 he flew the craft (tethered to the ground) for the first time.
“During my 30 years of actual connection with aviation, I have never been in the air in a machine that was as pleasant to fly as the helicopter,” Sikorsky recalled of the craft. “It is like a dream to feel the machine lift you gently up in the air, float smoothly over one spot for indefinite periods, move up or down under good control, as well as move not only forward or backward but in any direction.”
Subsequent tests would show that unlike other early helicopters, Sikorsky’s new craft could be flown with safety and precision. The Sikorsky R-4, which debuted in 1942 and was built on the VS-300 design, was the world’s first mass-produced helicopter. (The Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., which grew out of Sikorsky’s company, is now owned by Lockheed Martin and remains a major employer in Stratford.)
More than a century after Sikorsky first dreamt of flying as a boy, his innovations continue to influence the world of flight. In 1944 he predicted his inventions would be “far surpassed by other larger, faster and more luxurious flying vessels, that will cross continents and oceans, tropical and polar regions, with remarkable efficiency, comfort and regularity.” But he continued, “Nevertheless, as they fly the long transoceanic airways or make the short local flights, they will be following many of the routes which were originally pioneered and opened for peaceful air travel by the flying Clippers or the direct lift aircraft of the Winged-S.”