Saturday, March 07, 2015

Igor Sikorsky's Dream Took Flight With The Helicopter

On Feb. 24, 1972, the Andraus Building in Sao Paulo caught fire.Some of the people trapped inside threw themselves out of the windows to escape the flames.

Others rushed to the roof, where a swarm of Sikorsky helicopters plucked over 300 people from the burning building.

Sixteen people died in the blaze, but the death toll could've been much higher.

"I always believed that the helicopter would be an outstanding vehicle for the greatest variety of life-saving missions, and now, near the close of my life, I have the satisfaction of knowing that this proved to be true," Igor Sikorsky, the father of the helicopter, said in his last known letter, dictated Oct. 25, 1972, eight months after the chopper rescue and the day before he died.

He could take pleasure in knowing he was a trailblazer in aviation, building large multiengine aircraft, transoceanic flying boats and — crucially — helicopters, after dreaming of a flying machine as a kid.
Sikorsky was born in 1889 in Kiev, a city in present-day Ukraine that was part of Imperial Russia.

He grew up in a household that valued learning, as his father was a psychology professor and his mother was a medical school graduate.

"I was always interested in flying — I dreamed about it even when I was a small boy," Sikorsky said, according to documents found by the Sikorsky Archives in Stratford, Conn. "However, at that time flying was considered completely impossible. The very expression of 'He was building a flying machine' was considered equivalent to saying that the man was crazy."

Doing What's Wright

Sikorsky began his studies at the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg.

But after hearing about the Wright brothers' stunning, powered plane flight of 1903 in Kitty Hawk, N.C., Sikorsky was hooked on aviation. He made a beeline to Paris, studied aeronautics and took his knowledge back to Russia.

Sikorsky built his first helicopter in 1909, but it couldn't lift itself.

His model the next year achieved lift, but couldn't withstand the weight of a pilot.

"He was ahead of his time; the technology just wasn't there," said Vinny Devine, who joined Sikorsky Archives after 26 years of managing publications and writing tech copy at Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., which is also in Stratford.

So Sikorsky shelved his helicopter idea and turned his focus to fixed-wing aircraft. He proved good at it, building the world's first four-engine plane by 1913.

"I will admit that a great deal of the design of these early aircraft were based on pure guesswork," Sikorsky said.

During the Russian Revolution of 1917, with many of the people in his monarchist family and associates being executed by the Bolsheviks, Sikorsky fled to England, then France.

By 1919 he was in America, with aeronautical plans renewed.

"In America I found the confirmation of my hopes and came to understand the reason for the success of this country," he said. "Nothing can equal free work of free men. This is the foundation upon which the indisputable success of the United States has been built."

The sky was truly the limit for Sikorsky. And he wasted hardly any time aiming high.

He formed Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corp. in 1923 on Long Island. Three years later it built the S-35, a two-engine transport plane that was revamped with three engines for the first nonstop flight to Paris. This came amid an effort to win the Orteig Prize, which would go to whomever made the first trans-Atlantic flight.

But the S-35 was overloaded and crashed and burned during takeoff. One of the mechanics, a Sikorsky friend, was on the plane and died.

The tragedy didn't deter Sikorsky. He immediately went back to building a replacement jet, but Charles Lindbergh beat him to Paris and to the prize when his single-engine Spirit of St. Louis landed in Paris on May 21, 1927.

With aviation in its infancy during those days of the early 20th century, injury and death threatened pilots and crew each time they took flight. Sikorsky, who also piloted his planes, handled the danger through his faith in God, even writing two books on religion: "The Message of the Lord's Prayer" and "The Invisible Encounter."

He said: "In improving the situation, science and human intellect are capable of performing miraculous work, provided only that they are guided and directed by the intellect of the higher order — spiritual wisdom. Without such guidance, science and intellect are absolutely blind and completely unreliable."

Losing out to Lindbergh for the Orteig Prize wasn't going to deter Sikorsky, whose planes were on the rise. He had already built the S-29-A twin-engine plane in 1924.

Then in 1928 he completed the S-38, which could also land on water and was used by Pan Am in Central and South America.
Still, his company struggled financially. "He was an inventor and genius and wasn't great on the financial side of things," Devine said. "Business wasn't his strong suit."

Playing To His Strengths

In 1925, the company name changed to Sikorsky Manufacturing Co. and transferred administrative duties to Massachusetts businessman Arnold Dickinson, who invested $100,000. This let Sikorsky focus on building planes rather than running the business.

Four years later, the firm became part of United Aircraft & Transport, now called United Technologies (NYSE:UTX), and moved to Connecticut.

United Tech has since soared, reaching today's market cap of $108 billion and annual sales of $65 billion while seeing its stock triple since 2009. The conglomerate also owns Pratt & Whitney, which designs jet engines, and Otis Elevator.

While Sikorsky became a U.S. citizen, he remembered his Russian roots. He was loyal to fellow immigrants who helped found Sikorsky Aero Engineering, and when United Tech implemented budget cuts, he made sure his employees were spared, according to Devine.
Aviation was improving rapidly in the 1930s, flying farther with more passengers, and finally, in 1939, Sikorsky returned to his dream of building a helicopter.

"The helicopter approaches closer than any other (vehicle) to fulfillment of mankind's ancient dream of the flying horse and the magic carpet," he said.

Sikorsky changed the design of the VS-300 helicopter each day. The first tethered flight came in September 1939, with the first try without a lifeline eight months later. Finally, in May 1941, he hit on a configuration that worked well enough to produce. No one had ever flown a helicopter, and Sikorsky was his own test pilot.

His perseverance was crucial in getting the helicopter off the ground, said Devine: "He had an inventive mind, and if something didn't work he would think of another worth trying. Eventually he would get to something that worked."

All the while, Sikorsky noted that he wasn't alone in achieving his dream: "The whole art of aeronautics, all of man's accumulated experience in mechanical flight, has contributed to the development of direct-lift operation."

In 1943, the R-4 rolled out of the United Aircraft & Transport factory in Stratford, Conn., and became the first helicopter for the military. By April 1944, it was in the thick of World War II, hovering into a combat rescue mission in Burma.

Sikorsky continued to improve his designs, creating an amphibious helicopter that could take off and land in the water and a helicopter that could carry a jeep.

He kept an engineering notebook by his bedside and was on the job 24 hours a day. Even after he retired in 1957, he went to the office until the day he died, Devine says.

Sikorsky lived until age 83, and his legacy lives on at United Tech. The company kept the Sikorsky name for the helicopter unit after buying his company. "Sikorsky is unique in that our founder's innovative spirit, persistence and humility continue to inspire everyone who works at the company today, more than 90 years since its founding," said Mark Miller, vice president of research and engineering at Sikorsky Aircraft. "He created a mindset that continues to drive the company today — rethink, challenge and overcome what the world considers impossible."

Today, the U.S. military accounts for half of Sikorsky helicopter sales. Civilian medical and search and rescue teams also use the old Russian's helicopters to save lives around the world.

Story and photo:

No comments:

Post a Comment