Ihor Sikorsky: Pioneer of Ukrainian aviation

Source : 112 Ukraine

As Ukraine marks the Aviation Day, one can’t help remembering the native of Kyiv who gave life to helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft across the globe
11:00, 25 August 2017

Ihor Sikorsky, ca. 1950

On the last Saturday of August, workers of Ukraine’s civilian aviation industry mark their professional holiday – the Aviation Day. This also might be the good reason to remember the deeds of the great aircraft engineer Ihor Sikorsky.

Polish and Ukrainian by origin, Ukrainian by the place of birth, Sikorsky spent much of his life working for Russian the U.S. aviation industry. No wonder his contribution is equally – and greatly – appreciated far outside his homeland, Ukraine. 

Ihor Sikorsky is the native of Kyiv, which then, in the late 19th century, was part of the Russian Empire. The youngest of five children, Ihor developed extremely strong interest in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, and the stories of Jules Verne. As a teenager, he became interested in natural sciences. Back then, he began to experiment with model flying machines, and by age 12, he had made a small rubber band-powered helicopter.

'Aeronautics was neither an industry nor a science. It was a miracle'

Sikorsky began studying at the Saint Petersburg Maritime Cadet Corps, in 1903. Several years after that, he determined that his future lay in engineering, so he resigned from the academy, despite his satisfactory standing, and left the Russian Empire to study in Paris – the-then capital of the world of aircraft. Then, he returned to Kyiv in 1907, enrolling at the Mechanical College of the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute.

Since then, he never ceased to work on designs of aircraft of various types. Some of the test flights that he conducted himself proved successful – except for several accidents where he nearly lost his life. Once, during a demonstration of the S-5 helicopter, the engine quit and Sikorsky was forced to make a crash landing to avoid a wall. It was discovered that a mosquito in the gasoline had been drawn into the carburettor, starving the engine of fuel. The close call convinced Sikorsky of the need for an aircraft that could continue flying if it lost an engine.

'It is like a dream to feel the machine lift you gently up in the air, float smoothly over one spot'

In early 1912, Igor Sikorsky became Chief Engineer of the aircraft division for the Russian Baltic Railroad Car Works in Saint Petersburg. His work included the construction of the first four-engine aircraft, the S-21 Russky Vityaz. The engineer took the experience from building the Russky Vityaz to develop the S-22 Ilya Muromets airliner. Due to outbreak of World War I, he redesigned it as the world's first four-engined bomber, for which he was decorated with the Order of St. Vladimir.

After the First World War, Sikorsky saw little opportunity for himself as an aircraft designer in war-torn Europe, and particularly Russia, ravaged by the October Revolution and the Civil War (1917-1921). In 1919, he immigrated to the United States.

'It would be right to say that the helicopter's role in saving lives represents one of the most glorious pages in the history of human flight'

In the U.S., Sikorsky first worked as a school teacher and a lecturer, while looking for an opportunity to work in the aviation industry. In 1932, he joined the faculty of the University of Rhode Island to form an aeronautical engineering program and remained with the university until 1948. In 1923, Sikorsky formed the Sikorsky Manufacturing Company in Roosevelt, New York. Enjoying the adequate funding, he produced the S-29, one of the first twin-engine aircraft in America, with a capacity for 14 passengers and a speed of 115 mph.

His design plans eventually culminated in the first (tethered) flight of the Vought-Sikorsky VS-300 on September 14, 1939, with the first free flight occurring eight months later on May 24, 1940. Sikorsky's success with the VS-300 led to the R-4, which became the world's first mass-produced helicopter, in 1942. Sikorsky's final VS-300 rotor configuration, comprising a single main rotor and a single antitorque tail rotor has proven to be one of the most popular helicopter configurations, being used in most helicopters produced today.

'The work of the individual still remains the spark that moves mankind forward'

Sikorsky died at his home in Easton, Connecticut, on October 26, 1972, and is buried in Saint John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cemetery in Stratford, Connecticut.

The great aircraft designer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1987. In October 2011, one of the streets in Kiev was renamed after Sikorsky. The decision was made by the City Council at the request of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, which opened its office on that street. The Sikorsky's family house in the city's historical centre is preserved to this day but is in a neglected condition pending restoration.

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