Business and Labor

Igor Sikorsky: From Kiev to the U.S. to the Wild Blue Yonder

In the spring of 1913, word leaked out about a four-engine airplane being built by Igor Sikorsky. Many people believed it wouldn’t get off the ground. When newspapers reported the plane did leave the ground after a 2,300-ft. takeoff run, people thought it was a hoax.

Sikorsky’s Russky-Vityaz

The most weight ever carried by an airplane up until then was 1,323 lbs. Sikorsky’s four-engine airplane weighed 8,818 lbs.

Igor Sikorsky

Sikorsky was born on May 25, 1889, in Kiev, Ukraine, to a family with a noble Polish and Russian background. When he heard about the Wright brothers’ first flight, he decided to devote his life to making aircraft. He went to Paris to study aviation. Then he returned to Russia to design airplanes.

Igor Sikorsky in 1914

In 1910 he flew an airplane of his own design, but had to crash land when his engine failed. He discovered the engine quit because a mosquito in the gasoline got sucked into the carburetor. That convinced him of the need for a multi-engine airplane that could fly even if it lost one engine.

He then built the four-engine biplane called the Russky Vityaz. It had an enclosed cabin, a washroom, upholstered chairs and a balcony for passengers. Not only did he prove it could fly, he showed a passenger could walk around the cabin without causing problems. 

The Russian Revolution forced him to emigrate to the United States. He worked as a school teacher and eventually joined the faculty of the University of Rhode Island. He also taught at the University of Bridgeport.

In 1923, he established the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corp. on a Long Island farm with backing from composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, among others. In 1929 he moved the company to Stratford, Conn. The company manufactured flying boats like the famous S-42 that made transatlantic flights for Pan Am.

Sikorsky on the cover of Time magazine 1953

Finally, a Helicopter

In 1939, Sikorsky realized a lifelong dream by building the first viable American helicopter. The design formed the basis for the Sikorsky R-4, the first mass-produced helicopter launched in 1942.

The Sikorsky S2 Skycrane lifting a house

Sikorsky received many awards and accolades before his death on Oct. 26, 1972, in Easton, Conn. He recalled in 1967 how America had inspired him.

As a youth, I was impressed by the skyscrapers that were taller than anywhere else, by the railroad system that included more miles of rails than the total of the rest of the world. I was inspired by the achievements of such men as Edison, Ford, and others, and in my case particularly, the Wright Brothers.

This story updated in 2022.

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