For much of the time since its founder first tinkered with helicopter design, the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation has stood for the leading technology in vertical flight. The company's advanced, intermediate to heavy helicopters set standards in the world market, and its swift H-60 series of Blackhawk and Seahawk helicopters has long been the staple of military rotary wing fleets. Sikorsky made the helicopter practical--it also made it fast and, in some cases, downright huge.
A Pioneering Heritage
Igor Sikorsky was in a sense born to a pioneering family. His father, Ivan, was a researcher in the infant field of psychiatry during the late 19th century. As a boy, Sikorsky's interest in aviation was propelled by reading Jules Verne, particularly his Clipper of the Clouds, which described a hypothetical vertical flight machine.
Leonardo Da Vinci had also conceptualized such a machine, whose corkscrew would pull it straight up into the air. But imaginative horsepower was not enough; as with the history of powered fixed-wing flight that the Wright brothers first mastered, the limiting factor would be finding engines both strong enough and light enough to fly.
In 1908, Sikorsky's imagination was further stoked by seeing the Zeppelin dirigible in Germany and by hearing accounts of the Wright brothers' heavier-than-air flying machine, which was then touring Europe. Sikorsky had meanwhile studied at the Naval Academy in Saint Petersburg and Polytechnic Institute of Kiev, and had attended lectures in France as well. He returned to Russia in 1909, entering the passionate center of the nascent aviation community, where he was inspired by meeting legendary aviators Louis Bleriot and Ferdinand Ferber, who told Sikorsky his idea for a flight machine was unattainable.
Sikorsky's sister purchased for him the same type of engine that had powered Bleriot's channel-crossing flight, and Sikorsky returned to Kiev the next spring to build a helicopter. His first two attempts failed, however, and he turned to designing conventional aircraft. Sikorsky's fifth plane, appropriately dubbed the S-5, actually flew, though poorly. His next three designs, comprising the S-6 series, would both cement his reputation and attract a patron.
M.V. Shidlovskiy, impressed with the potential of both the airplane and Sikorsky himself, placed him in charge of the St. Petersburg aviation factory of the Russ-Baltic Wagon Company. There, in addition to building airsleds, Sikorsky built two streamlined aircraft that won competitions against France's most advanced military planes.
His next project was truly a gargantuan undertaking. The idea of multiple engines was viewed with some suspicion at the time, but Sikorsky began building a giant, four-engined flying machine which received several appellations. First called the Ruskii vityaz (Russian knight) by its designer, the aircraft picked up the tag the "Petersburg Duck" from skeptics before it had flown and eventually became known as the Grand. The stable craft proved multi-engined flight was viable, even with the loss of one or more engines.
The Grand was damaged while parked when a lesser aircraft's engine fell out of the sky and through its wing. Its successor, the Il'ya Muromets, succeeded on an even grander scale and brought Sikorsky worldwide acclaim. In 1914, one of its most memorable achievements was to fly, in stages, a 1,600-mile roundtrip between St. Petersburg and Kiev. Eventually 70 of these aircraft were built for use as bombers in World War I, bringing in the age of the heavy bomber. As would become a tradition for aircraft designers in Russia, Sikorsky was given the rank of General during the conflict.
Revolution in Russia and a Move to America
Sikorsky fled the Bolsheviks in February 1918; his patron, Shidlovskiy, was captured and executed. The impoverished Sikorsky soon made his way to France, where he won a contract to build military bombers. When the Great War soon came to an end, Sikorsky sailed for America.
Despite an unsuccessful venture with other émigrés in New York, in 1919 Sikorsky won a contract with the U.S. Army Air Service and moved to Washington, D.C. However, the plan was soon dropped for lack of funding, and Sikorsky returned to New York with a new focus on commercial aviation. A second attempt to form a partnership in 1920 also failed, and Sikorsky began teaching night classes to Russian immigrants to supplement his income. On March 5, 1923, Sikorsky formed the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation with help from his predominantly Russian expatriate supporters. Most of the shares were worth $100, but the esteemed composer Sergei Rachmaninoff gave Sikorsky $5,000, allowing him to rent hangar space at Roosevelt Field.
A chicken farm housed the company's first workshop, where Sikorsky's motivated team transformed a piece of junk&mdashtually many pieces of salvaged materials such as hospital beds--into an aircraft dubbed the S-29-A. Despite such inauspicious beginnings, the craft did get off the ground, though it quickly proved underpowered and its first attempt resulted in a crash landing. With new engines, the 14-passenger S-29-A finally overcame gravity on September, 25, 1924. A tour and numerous publicity stunts ensued, earning the fledgling company a place in the American imagination. Four years later the S-29-A (A for "America") ended its service life in the hands of another eminent aviation enthusiast, Howard Hughes, who destroyed it for a film stunt in the picture Hell's Angels.
Aviation dominated the American imagination in the Jazz Age. Airplanes became a popular art deco design motif and the airways became a stylish way to travel. The Sikorsky firm produced several designs for air races, including one for the Orteig transatlantic crossing prize that Lindberg eventually claimed. However, this plane, the S-35, was destroyed in a disastrous accident.
In spite of this setback, the company moved to a better equipped facility in College Point, New York. It settled in to producing clippers--the long-range amphibious aircraft that became a staple of international airlines such as Pan American. The fact that they were essentially flying boats naturally made them popular with aviators flying overseas routes concerned about safety. The S-38, the most successful of the lot, also appeared in corporate and military roles.
The company had become the Sikorsky Manufacturing Corporation in 1925, now led by Massachusetts businessman Arnold Dickinson as president. The company expanded quickly, relocating to Stratford, Connecticut, and reorganizing as the Sikorsky Aviation Company in 1929. It was promptly taken into the folds of the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation, which would be reorganized as the United Technologies Corporation in 1975.
The Whirling 1930s
The refined S-42 outclassed all of its clipper competitors upon its appearance in 1934. However, the heyday of the flying boat was rapidly coming to an end, and the company would have to scramble to stay in business.
Sikorsky persuaded United Aircraft management to let him revisit his old studies on developing a practical vertical flight apparatus. Some headway had been made since Sikorsky abandoned his projects. Engines and building materials had become lighter and stronger and the autogiro, essentially a conventional aircraft with a large free-rotating propeller on top instead of a fixed wing, first flew in the 1920s. So, in 1939, Sikorsky began to work on the project again at the Vought-Sikorsky plant in Stratford, Connecticut.
Although Sikorsky had patented in 1931 a design for a single-rotor helicopter, others had outpaced him by the time he reentered the field. The World War I aviator Henrich Focke had built a twin-rotor helicopter in 1936, and others in Germany and France were also producing working models. In fact, Anton Flettner's Fl-282 Kolibri (Hummingbird) became operational in the German military in 1940.
As a helicopter's rotor turns one way, opposite forces swing the body the other. Some balance is needed in order to keep the machine stable--usually either another, counter-rotating rotor or a small vertically-mounted tail rotor. Sikorsky was unique in devoting his efforts to the single-rotor philosophy, which he erroneously believed he had originated. (His countryman Boris Yuriev had developed such a design in 1912.)
Sikorsky borrowed the main rotor design from the autogiro developed by Juan de la Cierva, which was by then being made in America. The first models of the VS-300 actually had three tail rotors; a number of different configurations were tried.
The VS-300 first flew on September 14, 1939, the dawn of World War II. It was just a short, tethered flight, but it confirmed the viability of the craft. After a change of engines and other adjustments over the next several months, it became capable of extended flights, although controllability in forward flight remained a problem.
Nevertheless, the progress of the VS-300 earned Sikorsky Aircraft a contract to build a model for the U.S. Army in January 1941, to be dubbed the XR-4. In May, the refined VS-300-A set a stunning endurance record, hovering for one hour and 30 minutes. Sikorsky, and the United States, stood at the forefront of vertical flight.
Military Helicopters' Heyday: 1940s-60s
Sikorsky built 131 of the R-4 series during World War II; over 200 other models were also built. The British firm Westland built a version of its successor, the R-5, under license, dubbing it the Dragonfly. The helicopters were used for reconnaissance and rescue missions right away. In 1944, an R-4 flying in Burma made the first combat aerial rescue. Soon these types of missions were being flown routinely, since the helicopter could reach places that no fixed-wing aircraft could, and its hovering ability made it practical to pluck people from harm's way. R-4s were used extensively in the Korean War.
The R-4 spawned the company's first civil helicopter, known as the S-51. In spite of its unparalleled military and civil applications, the helicopter never became the consumer item that Sikorsky envisioned after the war. Every man, it turned out, would not one day have a helicopter in his backyard, as illustrated in one of the company's wartime promotional films.
For a time in the 1950s and 1960s, three commuter airlines, serving New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, operated aircraft such as the large S-61 twin-rotor helicopter to ferry passengers from the outlying airports of the jet age to urban centers. Due to the high cost of flying the helicopters ($3.68 per seat per mile in 1954), these operations were heavily subsidized (half the average fare, or a total of $4.3 million in 1965). The flights were consigned to history after the subsidies were eliminated in 1970, though the popularity of the flights had grown and the per-seat cost had fallen to only $.32 per mile by 1964.
The S-64 "flying crane," a huge, powerful helicopter specifically designed to carry large loads, created its own unique heavy-lifting niche. The copter was unique in that it did away with the cargo compartment that would otherwise limit its lifting capacity, instead latching onto containers. It first flew in 1962, but never developed into the modular commuter vehicle Sikorsky had envisioned. Of 98 aircraft made, 88 were used in military applications. Among the few commercial customers, U.S. Steel tested the concept of lifting manufactured houses to remote locations with these aircraft.
Sales of helicopters to the U.S. military during the Vietnam War peaked in the mid-1960s, when corporate orders were also rising. Between 1953 and 1996, Sikorsky sold 1,444 of its S-58 models to the U.S. government. The commercial sector was dominated by competitor Bell Aerospace, which also sold thousands of its military UH-1 series. Sikorsky introduced its CH-53, designed to carry troops for the Marine Corps and at the time the largest helicopter in the world, in 1962. Sikorsky faced some Soviet competition in South America for military and oil industry clients.
Passing of a Legend
Sikorsky, who had retired in 1957, died on October 26, 1972. By the time of Sikorsky's death, the helicopter had become well established in the civilian world. By 1970, almost 300 hospitals in the United States relied on helicopters for ambulance duties, and the number of heliports had grown within a decade from about 360 to more than 2,300.
Passenger helicopters were still being used by some commuter carriers, and the industry as a whole (including entrants such as Bell, Hughes, and Boeing's Vertol division) shipped more than 500 units per year to the commercial sector. Growth was expected in several areas, such as servicing offshore oil platforms, which remained a viable area, as well as serving in corporate fleets. Sikorsky sought to increase its exports.
In the mid-1970s the company promoted its S-67 Blackhawk attack helicopter as a replacement for the Vietnam era Bell AH-1 Cobra. Although its testing program suffered a lethal crash in 1974, the machine eventually became a favorite of the U.S. armed forces. Sikorsky continued to dominate the military marketplace throughout the 1970s.
Military contracts kept coming during the Reagan years, including a $950 million contract for 294 UH-60 helicopters. By 1982 Sikorsky had grown into a military giant, with total sales of $1 billion and 12,000 employees.
In the mid-1980s, Boeing and Sikorsky entered into a joint venture to develop the $22 billion LHX program of light helicopters. They were awarded the military contract in 1991, assuring both companies a place in attack helicopter niches as well as the prospect of future international sales. At the time, the company was producing only four models: the Black Hawk, Seahawk, S-76, and CH-53. However, its research interests were diverse, including studying materials for a hypersonic aircraft.
Sikorsky sought international manufacturing partners throughout the 1980s. In 1984, the company succeeded in selling two dozen commercial helicopters to China. Nevertheless, only a fraction of sales, which totaled $1.5 billion in 1987, came from foreign sources.
New Horizons in the 1990s
The company remained dependent on military contracts, a liability in the 1990s. It laid off nearly 2,000 workers in the first two years of the decade. The S-92 carried Sikorsky's hopes for the future in the commercial medium helicopter segment, where the company expected the most growth.
In July 1997, Sikorsky announced an agreement to supply the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force with helicopters for five more years. The Army ordered 58 UH-60L Black Hawks, while the Navy ordered 42 CH-60 assault helicopters, and the Air Force ordered eight HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters for search and rescue.
In 1994, international clients accounted for one-third of the company's $2.1 billion in sales. It produced 18 different models in order to satisfy the divergent demands of the international marketplace. The company also looked abroad, specifically in Turkey, to develop relationships with foreign suppliers.
In 1997, Korean Air Lines Co. joined Sikorsky in a six-year, $400 million agreement to develop general purpose helicopters. Sikorsky also shared technology with De Bono Industries of Malacca as part of a $20 million helicopter sale to the Malaysian government.