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A man and a helicopter: the story of Russian engineering genius that conquered America

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A man and a helicopter: the story of Russian engineering genius that conquered America


Yulia Goryacheva

130 years ago Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky, a legendary Russian aircraft designer, philosopher and visionary, was born. It was he who designed the very systems that are currently used, for example, in advanced helicopters of the presidents of the United States and Russia. Indeed, the legacy of the famous aircraft designer who created the world's first bomber, a four-engine aircraft and a single-rotor helicopter is our national pride.

The Tsar’s Favourite

In 1913, the Russkiy Vityaz (that became the forefather of all multi-engine heavy aircraft in the world), an airplane designed by Igor Sikorsky, covered a distance of only 100 km during its first flights over suburbs of St. Petersburg. Today, flights of the successors of Igor Sikorsky's brainchild are of much larger scale, while his authority in creating heavy multi-engine aircraft is indisputable.

The future scientist and aircraft designer was born on May 25 (in the Julian calendar) in 1889 in the family of Ivan Alekseevich Sikorsky, a renowned Kiev psychiatrist and psychologist, who, in his turn, had been born into a family of a poor rural priest. In his youth days, he studied in the St. Petersburgs Maritime Cadet Corps for three years. The future aircraft designer completed only the general course there: in 1906 he went to France, the aeronautics cradleland, where he studied in Duvigno de Lanno, a well-known engineering school, for six months.

Igor Sikorsky on his first airplane. Photo credit:

In 1907, the young man entered the Kiev Polytechnic Institute. He read about the Wright brothers and he worked a lot in his ad hoc aviation workshop, gradually beginning to realize that aviation could become a lifework for him. Sergey Sikorsky, the eldest son and successor of the world renowned aircraft designer, testifies: “My fathers main step of on his way to aviation ... was represented by two books that he had read at the age of 16. The first one was Robur the Conqueror by Jules Verne, the book which is largely unknown nowadays. And when an old leather book containing manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci was found in England, it became the second spark. The book included The Codex Atlanticus, one of his latest works with drawings of various pumps and pumpers, as well as the famous helicopter drawing.” In 1909, Igor Sikorsky again goes to Paris to learn from Ferdinand Ferber, a famous designer and test pilot. Having returned to Kiev, he becomes an independent designer.

Sikorsky's aircraft projects sparked interest in Major General Mikhail Shidlovsky. He was in charge of Russian air detachments and squadrons and headed the famous Russo-Balt plant at that time. Despite the inventors age (22 y.o.), Shidlovsky signs a contract with him for design of an aircraft. Initially, those were the designs of small fighter planes. But soon Igor Sikorsky realized that for Russia, with its harsh climate and vast spaciousness, it is crucial to build a powerful four-engine aircraft.

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In the autumn of 1913, the aircraft designer and his assistants present the design. And the very next day, the aviation department of the plant commences construction of the Russkiy Vityaz (Russian Knight). It happened just nine and a half years after the Wright brothers flights. Historians say that Nicholas II personally examined the Russkiy Vityaz and talked with its creator in the cockpit for half an hour. A week later, the Tsar sent a gold watch to the inventor as a gift. Subsequently, Igor Sikorsky was also awarded the Order of St. Vladimir of the IV Class. There is an opinion, that the very reason for Igor Sikorskys immigration on a British ship from Murmansk in March 1918 was the Russian tsars benevolence to him. According to another point of view, he understood that the aircraft industry in Russia would not be able to develop for many years after collapse of army and industry in general, as well as due to closure of the Russo-Balt plant.

Caption on the photo: His Imperial Majesty the Emperor on the Russkiy Vityaz
Nicolas II and Igor Sikorsky on the Russkiy Vityaz Photo credit:

Mister Helicopter

In March 1919, Sikorsky moved from France to the United States. At first, Igor Ivanovich had very poor life in America. He taught mathematics, gave lectures on aviation and astronomy to Russian immigrants at night classes. In 1923, the aircraft designer established the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation in close contact with Russian engineers. The aviation company was located in the former chicken coop of one farm in Long Island (New York). Sikorsky held the office of vice president.

The startup was rather challenging. There was no substantial primary capital. Sikorsky built his first aircraft in the United States with selfless help of fifteen Russian émigrés, who worked free of charge. Sergei Rachmaninoff, the outstanding Russian composer, personally participated in the project. He sent a check for $ 5,000, which was quite a significant amount at that time. The archives contain several letters from the composer, where he described Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky as the real Ilya Muromets.

Photo credit: 112.International

Before 1939, Sikorsky designed about 15 types of aircraft. His first major success in America was associated with the S-38 amphibian aircraft (1928). Its modifications, S-42 and S-43, were filmed in Volga-Volga, a Soviet film. The aircraft came to be so successful that the plant received orders for 114 such machines.

In 1939, the aircraft designer convinced the management of United Aircraft (now United Technologies Corporation, which includes Sikorsky Aircraft), that the time was right for helicopters. Today Sikorskys name is known to the whole world. In recognition of his services in helicopter engineering, the founder of the modern aeronautics and the founder of the American helicopter industry was nicknamed as Mister Helicopter in the USA.

Now helicopters, in particular Sikorskys helicopters, represent one of the pillars of US combat power. As to Igor Sikorsky himself, he assigned great priority to capabilities of helicopters in rescue operations, in transporting the wounded and sick people, in the distribution of humanitarian and medical aid, as well as in engineering works. According to Professor Evgeny Alexandrov, the most reputable researcher of Russian Americans contributions to the history of the US development, more than a million lives have been saved with his helicopters.

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The aircraft designers helicopters were used for the first flights across the Atlantic (S-61, 1967) and Pacific (S-65, 1970) oceans (with air refueling). Designs by the "Russian company" were extremely popular. Most orders came from Pan American, the aeronautical giant.

Going forward

Sikorsky established a new company – Sikorsky Aviation Corporation. And, in the first turn, he hired Russian employees aiming to support his compatriots. The Glukharyov brothers, Mikhail Biuvid, Nikolay Solovyov, Nikolai Kodrov, Nikolai Labensky, Georgiy Meyer and others worked together with the chief designer at the company's new plant in Stratford, where the Russians built (partly with Sikorskys funds) the St. Nicholas church (1942). A.Nikolsky, N.Aleksandrov, V.Gartsev left the Sikorskys company and later became professors in the major American universities.

Decades later, Sikorsky in some sense got materialized in his homeland with assistance of his compatriots who believed in him. Thus, in 1959 Nikita Khrushchev bought a famous S-58 helicopter from the American President Eisenhower (he was the first among heads of states who used helicopters for personal needs).

Documents and memoirs of compatriots tell us that the world-renowned aircraft designer was actively engaged in life of the Russian community. He headed the Tolstoy Foundation and the Pushkin Society of America. Sikorsky also supported Alatas, a Russian-language publishing house established by Nicholas Roerich and George Grebenstchikoff, a young Siberian writer, in the village of Churaevka (it was founded by Russian settlers in Connecticut) in the fall of 1923. In 1931 he published The Book of Life there, the famous psychological anthology by Professor Ivan Sikorsky, his father.

Sikorsky was an honorary member of the Russian United Mutual Benefit Society in America and the Society of Russian American Engineers in the USA, which were active back then. He lectured on the latest achievements in the field of helicopter engineering in the Science Society affiliated with the Russian United Mutual Benefit Society in America; most of its members were Russian peasants who migrated to America for work and were eager for knowledge.

Igor Sikorsky in 1972. Photo credit:

According to documents kept in the archive of the Tolstoy Foundation (Russian emigrant charitable organization established in New York on April 15, 1939 by Alexandra Lvovna Tolstaya, Tolstoys youngest daughter, with the aim to help Russian refugees in the US and Europe), that after the World War II Igor Sikorsky, together with other well-known figures of the Russian émigré community, such as Prince S. S. Belosselsky-Belozersky, L. F. Magerovsky, P. A. Sorokin, K. G. Belousov, made enormous efforts to save the Russian d.p. (short for displaced person").

Igor Sikorsky was always well regarded in the Russian settlement. Russian Americans knew that he, just like his father and grandfather, reflected a lot on issues of the universe and wrote theological works. Few people know that Sikorsky wrote philosophical books, such as The invisible encounter (1938), The message of the Lords prayer (1942).

These works have now returned to Russia and sparked great interest among our compatriots. For example, in early 2011, Russian readers at the Alexander Solzhenitsyn House of Russia Abroad welcomed presented to them Sky and Heaven, a collection of religious and philosophical works of Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky, with great attention. The collection includes four religious and philosophical works: I. Our Father. Reflection on the Lords Prayer; II. Invisible struggle. The temptation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the desert and the history of mankind; III. The evolution of the soul; IV. In Search of Higher Realities.

Through his works, Sikorsky aimed to comprehend the following questions: what the modern world is coming to and why good remains good, evil becomes evil, death remains death, and salvation is salvation. Writing of Our Father. Reflections on the Lord's Prayer. (December 1941, Connecticut) coincides in time with the mass production launch of a helicopter invented by the Russian engineering genius. Being a grandson of the well-known Orthodox priest from Kiev and a first-class research engineer, the author examines in detail every element of the Lords Prayer and tells about its eternal relevance and enduring value for the Christian soul following up on nearly two thousand years of theological tradition.

It is worth mentioning that after moving to the USA, Sikorsky was a parishioner of the Russian Church Abroad, and later he joined the Russian-American Church. It is also known that Igor Sikorsky financially supported construction of the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Stratford (1942) and occasionally sponsored one of the American biblical societies - Worldwide Bible Reading.

In 1938, the renowned aircraft designer was entrusted to deliver a speech before his compatriots on the occasion of the 950th anniversary of Christianization of Rus'. Referring to Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Solovyov, Sikorsky addressed the audience with the following words: The Russian people should not think how to turn back to something that could not persist; apparently, it was not preserved; but rather think how to get out from the swamp we now got bogged down to a wide road and go forward."

Igor Sikorskys merits for the global aircraft industry and the United States were indisputable. In 1951, President Harry Truman awarded the renowned aircraft designer with the Colliers prize on behalf of the helicopter industry. The airport in Bridgeport (Connecticut) was named after Sikorsky. There is a historical archive named after Sikorsky - The Igor Sikorsky Historical Archives. The inventor received many awards, prizes, letters of appreciation and honorary memberships for his work. In particular, he was awarded the honorary John Fritz Medal for outstanding scientific and industrial achievements in the field of basic and applied sciences in the field of aviation." Only two people were honored with such award - Orville Wright and him. President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the National Medal for Scientific Achievement.

Sikorsky at the cover of Time Magazine. Photo credit:

Sikorskys name, along with names of Edison, Böhm, Fermi, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Pasteur, is listed in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1988, the US Postal Service issued a 36-cent aviation stamp with Sikorskys portrait, image of VS-300, the most popular of his helicopters, and the "Igor Sikorsky" inscription.

Inscription on Igor Sikorskys grave at the Saint John Cemetery in Stratford reads: "Rare is the man whose vision whose dreams become reality. Rarer still is one whose vision brings a better life to others while fulfilling his own. Such a man was Igor I. Sikorsky, "Father of the Helicopter," aeronautical pioneer, inventor and philosopher."

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