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The Man Behind the Helicopter: Igor Sikorsky

Apr 06, 2018
Helicopters play a critical part in transporting injured civilians and soldiers to hospitals, provide disaster relief, offer air support in hostile situations for military and law enforcement, give news stations a birds-eye view, and opened up a whole new tourism industry. They are an irreplaceable part of our life, and we can thank Igor Sikorsky for introducing helicopters to culture.

Igor Sikorsky (born May 25, 1889, Kiev, Russia [now Ukraine] - died October 26, 1972, Easton, Connecticut) is the man who dreamed and created the helicopter. Following in the footsteps of the Wright Brothers, he is the pioneer of the helicopter.

Background and Education

While his father was a physician and a professor of psychology, it is said that Sikorsky's mother was a large influence in his pioneering career. Though she was a physician too, she didn't practice and instead pursued her interests in the arts. 

In 1903, Sikorsky joined the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg but left in 1906 to pursue his interests in engineering. He briefly studied in Paris and then came back to his hometown for further study at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute. After a successful academic year, he realized the theoretical science and high-application mathematics didn't apply to the practical problems he wanted to solve. He left the Kiev Polytechnic Institute to study and experiment in his own lab and shop. 

Early Career

During his travels through Europe in 1908, Sikorsky heard of the accomplishments of the Wright brothers and made contact with the European engineers who were trying to copy their work. Drawing from Da Vinci's theories of flight, Sikorsky spent the next two years studying and building a horizontal rotor engine. Two years and two machines later, Igor Sikorsky’s first helicopter never made it off the ground.

He realized he had to wait until engineering and science were more favorable to get his ideas off the ground. For the next thirty years, he concentrated on aeronautics and began engineering planes for the Russian army. He invented the first four-engine aircraft, the "Le Grand", which would be a precursor to modern-day bomber-crafts. 

Coming to America

In May 1919, he sailed to America after the Russian Revolution. With a few associates, Sikorsky started Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation. By 1929, his business was folded into a division of the United Aircraft Corporation. The company was a large supplier of twin-engine amphibians and later, the S-40 "American Clipper" that pioneered Pan American World Airways. 

First Helicopter Flight

It wasn't until 1939 that Igor Sikorsky inventions were fully recognized. With the world on the cusp of war once more, the military called upon Sikorsky's expertise. By this time, science and engineering had caught up with Sikorsky's ideas. 

With the backing of the military and an experienced team of engineers, Sikorsky was able to build his third helicopter. In September 1939, the VS-300 made its first successful flight.

Sikorsky’s Legacy

The success of his helicopters surprised even Sikorsky. While he built the helicopter with the idea of rescue-and-supply runs in mind, he didn’t consider the helicopter being used as a military offense. Later in life, he admitted that his one regret of the helicopter's success was being "too conservative." 

Thirty years after the VS-300 was built, Sikorsky estimated 15,000 lives had been saved by his inventions. Today, that number would be even higher. Sikorsky was truly, one of the great pioneers of the 20th century.

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