LITTLE did the fledgling aviation industry — if it could even be called that at the time — realise it had among its ranks a pre-teen-age Russian boy, Igor Sikorsky, who had designed and built his first helicopter. What made his feat even more remarkable was that this helicopter, albeit just a rubber-band powered toy, made its appearance just before the Wright Brothers first became airborne and flew into the history books.
Born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1889 to a family of physicians, Igor Sikorsky built his first helicopter at the age of 12. It was a small toy which did not actually fly, but it would turn out to be the start of his life’s work.
Sikorsky would attend schools in Paris and Ukraine, studying the sciences. Although he did well in academics, he lost interest due to the lack of practical application. He wanted to be more “hands-on”.
Continuing with his idea of going straight up, he started on a design in 1909 with some financial assistance from his sister. His biggest challenge was finding an engine light enough. Because the craft would have a horizontal propeller rather than a vertical one, it had to be as light as possible to escape gravity’s pull from a standstill position.
Unfortunately, the technology of the time was too far behind his ideas. His 1909 helicopter never showed any indication of being able to get off the ground, and neither did his follow-up in 1910. He pocketed his vertical lift idea until the technology caught up and started work on conventional airplanes.
Sikorsky’s experience with helicopter design quickly advanced him in airplane development. He soon became a leading contender in the world of airplane manufacturing with his line of “S” aircraft. His S-5 could obtain higher altitudes and stay aloft longer than similar competitors and important people started paying attention to him, even Czar Nicholas II. His subsequent S-6 won the highest possible award at a Moscow air show.