This aviation legend, who died on October 26, 1972, is remembered personally as a deeply religious man with a strong accent, about equal height to Henry Ford (under 5 feet 9 inches), typically pictured wearing a mustache and fedora over his thinning hair.
Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky was born to an aristocratic family, the youngest of five, on May 15, 1889 in Kiev when the Ukrainian capital belonged to the Russian empire. Jules Verne inspired him to build his first rubber-banded helicopter as a child of twelve. As an adult, he tried again, but failed and it would not be until 1939 that Sikorsky finally built and flew the first successful single-rotor helicopter, putting his name into the history books as the “father” of the modern day versions.
His life was a series of ups and downs. He became a success in Russia for his fixed-wing aircraft but his political views forced him to leave his fortune behind and flee to France following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. With no prospects in Europe at the end of World War I, he immigrated in 1919 to America. He turned to teaching night classes until in 1923, he sold shares to mostly members of the Russian community (including the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff) to form the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation. He and his team used their workshop on a chicken farm to build their first aircraft out of salvage. The initial attempt at a helicopter was a scary-looking contraption and needless to say, Sikorsky ended up in a lot of crash landings.
In 1924, he married his second wife, Elisabeth Semion, and in 1928, he became a citizen. The following year, United Aircraft (now United Technologies) bought the Sikorsky Aviation Company as it had been renamed and the headquarters moved to Connecticut where the company manufactured the first of the famous Pan Am Clippers or flying boats.
On the helicopter front, Sikorsky tried various rotor configurations and settled on a single rotor at the end of a long tail and a three-blade rotor on top. On a side note, his Helicopter Pilot License was number one in Connecticut.
The year of the first flight by the VS-300 was also the beginning of World War II. Although Sikorsky had envisioned the machine as a means of rescue since it could go to hard-to-reach places and hover, it was naturally suited for war use and hundreds were in service by the end of that conflict. It has remained a familiar sight in battle zones ever since.
The company still operates out of Connecticut where Sikorsky lies buried. You can read more about his and the helicopter’s history at the Sikorsky website.