On this day in history in 1939, Russian-born US aeronautical engineer Igor Sikorsky flew a VS-300, the world’s first successful helicopter.
The youngest of five children born in the Russian Empire in present day Ukraine, Sikorsky grew to love art and engineering as a child when he studied the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci and Jules Verne. At a young age, he began experimenting with model flying machines and crafted a small, rubber band-powered helicopter when he was only 12. After enrolling in several different academies in Russia and Paris, Sikorsky accompanied his father to Germany, where he learned about the accomplishments of the Wright brothers and Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who pioneered the dirigible, or airship. “Within 24 hours, I decided to change my life’s work,” Sikorsky later said about this trip. “I would study aviation.”
He studied aeronautics in Paris, at the time the center of the aviation world. Sikorsky designed his first helicopter in May of 1909, which he later determined would never fly.
After World War I, Sikorsky emigrated to the United States in 1919, where, supported by Russian military officers, he formed the Sikorsky Manufacturing Company. There, he designed the S-29, one of the first twin-engine aircraft in the US that reached speeds of up to 115 mph. Sikorsky’s company went on to become a subsidiary of the larger United Aircraft Corporation, which later evolved into the United Technologies Corporation, where he developed several successful aircraft including the eight-seat S-36, his first practical amphibious aircraft; the nine-seat S-38, which drew orders from ten airlines and the US Navy; the S-40 and S-42 Clippers; and the VS-44A Excalibur, a “flying boat” that could hold up to 40 passengers.
Despite his success, Sikorsky never gave up on his dream of a vertical-lift aircraft. He continued to work on this dream and, in 1931, patented a design for a craft with a single large rotor and a small anti-torque tail rotor, the now-ubiquitous helicopter design. He was awarded patent #1,994,488 on 19 March 1935, and in 1938 United Aircraft accepted Sikorsky’s recommendations to develop the first helicopter. The open-cockpit VS-300 flew for the first time on 14 September 1939.
By 1942, the Sikorsky S-47 was delivered to the US Army Air Corps and became the prototype for the world’s first mass-produced helicopter used by the US armed forces. Sikorsky’s design proved to be the most popular helicopter format, and to this day is still the most-used design in helicopter production.
Credit: U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission
Caption: Igor Sikorsky flies the VS-300.