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Reminiscing About Rotorcraft Pioneers with Sergei Sikorsky

Posted 13 years 187 days ago ago by Admin

Interview by Brad McNally, Contributing Editor - As we wrap up the Rotorcraft Pioneers Series I was lucky enough to have a chance to talk with one of the few people who have been involved with helicopters in North America from the beginning, Mr. Sergei Sikorsky.  He’s crossed paths with more than few of the people profiled in the Pioneers Series and I had the chance to ask him about helicopters, his father’s legacy and his encounters with some of the people I profiled.

The oldest son of Dr. Igor Sikorsky, Sergei Sikorsky started working in his father’s shop on the first North AmericanSergei Sikorsky helicopter the VS-300 in the early 1940s.  During World War II, he served in the US Coast Guard as an Aviation Machinist’s Mate.  Later Sergei Sikorsky joined United Aircraft (now United Technologies) where he was heavily involved in a series of helicopter projects that included S-55 production in Japan, the S-64 “Flying Crane” prototype and CH-53 production for the German military.  In 1975 Mr. Sikorsky was reassigned to Sikorsky corporate headquarters where he worked on foreign and domestic marketing assignments.  He eventually retired as the Vice President of Special Projects in 1992.  Mr. Sikorsky remains active as an aviation consultant, a member of several aviation organizations and a highly regarded authority on helicopter history.  After 70 years in the helicopter business he has accumulated a long list of honors and awards which include Sweden’s Royal Aeronautical Society’s Thulin Bronze Medal, an Honorary Doctorate in Aviation Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and designation as a Technical Fellow in the American Helicopter Society.

RPM:  You’ve had a remarkable association with helicopters and I’m not sure where to start so I guess I’ll go to the beginning.  You grew up around aviation and in 1942 were working in your father’s shop on the first North American helicopter the VS-300.  As one of the few people to have seen this machine up close what are your earliest recollections of this historic aircraft and what can you say about the impact that the VS-300 had on history?

SS:  You can say that I grew up around aviation, my first recollections of aviation were as a seven and eight year old when I would watch the Sikorsky Clipper Ships being delivered to Pan America Airlines and other customers around 1932-35.  That’s when my love affair with aviation began.  I remember around 1935-1936 my father would retire to his office at home to sketch out ideas for the helicopter, working on flying boats during the day and spending his evenings on the helicopter.  He would make these sketches and I would carve the helicopters out of balsa wood.  Then my father would take the models that I had made to his engineers to stimulate their interest in the helicopter, explain principles and garner support and enthusiasm.  I was about fifteen or sixteen years old at the time when I made these demonstrator models.  I worked in the Sikorsky Factory in 1942 and 1943.  Although I wasn’t present for the very first flight, I remember clearly the early hops of the VS-300.  I was actively engaged as a grease monkey, climbing up onto the top of the helicopter to grease the automobile bearings with a grease gun.  The importance of the VS-300 is the fact that my father pioneered and developed a single main rotor with tail rotor configuration which had previously been talked about but considered impossible or impractical by the other pioneers of the day.  It was widely believed that the helicopter could only be successful if there were two rotors to cancel out each other’s torque effects.  The first Sikorsky patent applications for the single main rotor are dated in the early 1930s.  My father decided to stick with this configuration and ultimately the VS-300 proved the versatility of the single main rotor and tail rotor concept.  After the VS-300 had flown and up to the present day, 96% of all helicopters are based on the single main rotor and tail rotor configuration  used on the VS-300.  So I would say that the overwhelming significance of the VS-300 was that it proved the method that has become by far the most popular configuration of the helicopter.

RPM:  Around that same time you flew with your father in the VS-300.  This would make you one of the few people to have actually flown in the VS-300 and one of the first helicopter passengers ever.  What do you remember about your flights in the VS-300?

SS:  I flew in the VS-300 on several occasions; my flights in it were towards the tail end of its development when it was being used to test several ideas that my father had.  I flew standing on the main landing gear holding onto the bracing around the main rotor shaft.  Later a small second cockpit was added near the shaft so as not to disturb the center of gravity.  I also flew in it sitting on this small platform.  My father was the pilot and flew in the front cockpit, there was no way for me to touch the controls due to the configuration, all of the controls led to the open cockpit in the front.

RPM:  In 1943 your father made his final flight in the VS-300 and then personally donated it to Henry Ford for inclusion in the Henry Ford Museum.  How hard was it for your father to part with his first successful helicopter? 

SS:  I think that it was very hard for my dad to let go of the machine.  Henry Ford mentions in one of his correspondences that my dad slowly climbed out after his last flight and stroked the side of the helicopter.  Dad said to Mr. Ford afterwards, “She was a good ship, a sweet little ship.”  I think that this sums up his love and attachment to the VS-300.

RPM:  Did your father talk about the VS-300 much after he donated to the museum?

SS:  On occasion when he was reminiscing he would talk about the VS-300.  However, the period following the donation was a very intense period for Sikorsky aircraft.  The R-4 was being launched and the R-5 and R-6 designs were being finalized.  Dad’s plate was pretty full working out the bugs and redesigning the R-4 and designing the R-5 and R-6.

RPM:  Your father had the monumental task of not only developing a new type of aircraft but also teaching himself how to fly it as it was developed.  How did he approach helicopter flying, especially early on when he was learning to fly?

SS:  My father approached the flight test work of the VS-300 with the same prudence and step by step attitude that let him survive his first flights in fixed wing aircraft.  He also taught himself to fly airplanes while designing fixed wing aircraft.  Dad used to say that, “fixed wing aircraft may have been light and flimsy but that may have well saved a lot of pilots’ lives.”   

RPM:  The first issue of Rotorcraft Pioneers profiled Captain Frank Erickson of the Coast Guard.  During the 1940s you served in the Coast Guard under Captain Erickson at Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn.  By all accounts Captain Erickson believed whole heartedly in the rescue helicopter and despite stiff opposition within the military to helicopters, pushed on with developing them.  What was it like to work with someone who had such a great belief in the helicopter and how should helicopter history remember Frank Erickson?

SS:  It was very inspiring and of course I was a terrific fan of CDR Erickson because in many respects he was speaking just as Igor Sikorsky was speaking about the life saving potential of the helicopter.  At Floyd Bennett field I had the chance to continue the same type of work that I was dreaming about while at the Sikorsky Factory.  As an ex-Coastie I would say Frank Erickson was the Coast Guard’s Billy Mitchell.  Erickson was ostracized and put out to pasture by the fixed wing community due to his emphatic belief in the helicopter.  There was a great deal of similarity between Mitchell and Erickson, both were very outspoken and generated a lot of professional enemies in their respective establishments. 

RPM:  You also crossed paths with Rotorcraft Pioneer Commander Stewart Graham while you were in the Coast Guard.  Commander Graham was truly a ground breaking pilot who among other things was the first to conduct a hoist at night, helped develop helicopter anti-submarine tactics and shipboard operations.  Even in today’s more advanced and reliable helicopters, these are some of the most demanding missions that helicopter pilots undertake.  How did Stewart Graham approach helicopter development and what can you say about his place in helicopter history?

SS:  Commander Graham was a terrific asset to Erickson.  Graham was faithful enough to Erickson and Erickson’s belief in the helicopter to follow him almost into banishment at the helicopter development unit in Elizabeth City, NC after the Coast Guard helicopter school at Floyd Bennett Field was closed.  I think that Graham’s place in aviation history can best be summed up by the fact that in the 1960s when the Navy finally decided that the helicopter had matured to the point of needing to be included in the Naval Test Pilot School, Graham was asked to set up a helicopter course at the Naval Test Pilot School.  The Navy didn’t have anyone who they thought was as qualified as Stewart Graham to start the helicopter course.  As I understand it, today’s material still mentions that Graham set up the original syllabus and was in charge of the helicopter course at the Test Pilot School for about 3 years.  Graham’s place in helicopter history is solid and long lasting.

RPM:  During your Coast Guard service you contributed greatly to making helicopters more capable machines by helping to develop arguably the most important piece of equipment on a rescue helicopter, the rescue hoist.  Did you have any idea then how important that piece of equipment would be to helicopter rescue missions?

Sergei Sikorsky HoistSS:  I would say that I contributed modestly.  I was much lighter and thinner than I am today and CDR Erickson was aware of the fact that if Igor Sikorsky’s son trusted the helicopter and rescue hoist then others would follow.  I did have a feeling that it was very, very important.  The development of the rescue hoist was the missing link to make the helicopter a universal tool for rescue.  Once the hoist was complete the group at Floyd Bennett which included Graham, Erickson and others began work on additional equipment.  The hoist helped spur the development of other rescue equipment such as the Erickson rescue basket. 

RPM:  During the initial testing of the helicopter hoist you were also one of the first to ever be hoisted by this new equipment.  Was that a duty that you volunteered for or were you assigned to be hoisted?

SS:  At that time I was a Second Class Petty Officer and as such you didn’t volunteer for anything, you were assigned.

RPM:  Knowing that the hoist was experimental and that the helicopters of the day were underpowered and not as reliable as they are today, what was going through your mind the first time that you were hoisted?

SS:  At eighteen or nineteen years old you are immortal and indestructible and I don’t think that those thoughts were in my mind.  As a mechanic you knew that the helicopters were underpowered so we always tried to make sure that the demonstrations were early in the morning or late in the afternoon and to use any bit of wind to your advantage.  The pilots always did a great job of managing the demonstrations.  I never associated the rescue demonstrations with any serious dangers; they were part of the job.

RPM:  Another Rotorcraft Pioneers article covered Brigadier General Frank Gregory of the Army Air Corps and Air Force.  Early in his career Gregory oversaw helicopter development for the military and was very impressed with the work that your father was doing.  So much so that Gregory convinced the military to fund some of the helicopter development work being done by Sikorsky.  Gregory’s work to support helicopter development and increase military interest in the helicopter is seen as being a contributing factor to both the end of the Autogiro era and the beginning of the helicopter.  How important do you think Gregory was to helicopter development in the 1940s?

SS:  I first met Gregory when he was a Captain.  His expertise dated back to his test pilot duties with the Autogiro.  His Autogiro experience benefited him tremendously when he was later assigned to oversee military helicopter development.  It is a matter of record that Gregory first flew the helicopter in 1940 and that his strong support of the helicopter allowed it to proliferate in the Air Forces.  During World War II, helicopters were sent out into China and Burma which allowed LT Carter Harman to make his historic rescue behind enemy lines.  Sikorsky R-6s made it into combat before the end of the war.  Helicopters were successfully used to transfer parts from floating machine shops and this led to medevac duties.  Eventually, the vision of the helicopter as a life saving high speed ambulance was confirmed and Gregory facilitated much of this.

RPM:  Most aviation historians would agree that the developments associated with the Autogiro in 1920s and 1930s significantly influenced helicopter development in the 1930s and 1940s.  Did your father closely follow Autogiro development and how much impact did it have on his ability to build the first successful North American helicopter?

SS:  Autogiro development undoubtedly had a large impact on the ability to build the first successful helicopter.  The helicopter rotor blades were Autogiro blades that came to the helicopter from the Autogiro with no difficulties.  The concept of the flapping hinge and the lead lag hinge were pioneered in the Autogiro.  These concepts came direct from the Autogiro to the helicopter and were crucial to the first successful helicopter flight.

RPM:  Even before he built his first successful helicopter, your father believed the helicopter would be extremely useful for humanitarian purposes.  This proved to be very prophetic.  It is hard to put a number on just how many people the helicopter has helped and how many lives it has saved.  Just as one example of the impact helicopters have had is the Sikorsky HH-52.  The US Coast Guard operated 97 HH-52 Seaguards over a 25 year period and during that time they saved over 15,000 lives.  Do you think that before he passed away he was able to fully realize how right he was and comprehend how many people the helicopter would be able to help?

SS:  The HH-52 is one of my favorite helicopters and I think that it did noble service with the Coast Guard.  My dad did realize that all of his predictions for the helicopter as a unique instrument for saving human lives had come true.  When he passed away he was very aware of the helicopter’s life saving missions and deeds and was very proud of this.  I remember one episode involving a unique life saving mission.  In the mid 1960s a Danish ferry was caught in a fierce unexpected storm in the North Sea.  The Royal Danish Air Force had just taken delivery of the Sikorsky S-61 or H-3 and rescued a number of people from the sinking ship.  I went to Copenhagen shortly after the rescue to interview the aircrews and wrote up a report.  I was very pleased when my dad’s secretary told me that he asked for a copy of the report, copied it and sent it out to some of his friends and acquaintances. 

RPM:  While your father is probably best known for his helicopter work, many people don’t realize that he was an extremely gifted fixed wing aeronautical engineer and pilot as well.  Among other things, he built the first four engine airplane and designed some very popular flying boats.  Of all his aircraft, both fixed and rotary wing, which one was his favorite?

SS:  I asked him that question myself many years ago.  His answer was that this was a very difficult question to answer because he had one or two outstanding machines as both a fixed wing and helicopter engineer.  With a twinkle in his eye he said that the Grand was very important in his career as it established him as an aeronautical engineer and pilot.  He also said that it was also one of the most difficult aircraft to fly.  It took off at 60 mph, cruised at 60 mph and stalled at 60 mph.  It was important in the aviation world because it was the first practical four engine aircraft and it was important from a piloting perspective as flying it made him a better pilot.  In his second career the S-42 flying boat was probably his favorite.  It was so far ahead of its time it allowed Pan Am to pioneer and survey the Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic flying routes and also establish a strong foothold in South America.  In his rotary wing career he was very proud of the S-61 or H-3.  It was a twin turbine amphibious helicopter that was very capable and ahead of its time.  However, in helicopters the VS-300 was probably his favorite.

RPM:  Rotorcraft Pioneers article number four profiled Arthur Young who made significant strides in helicopter stability and later partnered with Larry Bell to develop the third successful North American helicopter.  In Young’s autobiography he mentions how gratifying it was when, at the end of his presentation at the third Rotary Wing Conference in 1941, your father stood up and congratulated him on his work.  There seems to have been a tremendous sense of competition between the early helicopter designers but also a tremendous amount of mutual respect.  What can you say about the interactions amongst this group, especially in the 1940s?

SS:  These are the little interesting touches of Igor Sikorksy.  He was always very complimentary and he always tried to be fair with his compatriots in the aeronautical world.  In the mid 1950s the Piasecki and Sikorsky companies were fierce competitors.  I was told first hand that there was a dedication ceremony at the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River where both Frank Piasecki and Igor Sikorsky were seated near each other.  Two young Navy pilots took off, one in a Sikorsky S-58 and one in a Piasecki H-21, and both put on a very impressive flight demonstration in their respective aircraft.  The person who told me this story was sitting near my father and Frank Piasecki.  I was told that during the flight demonstration my dad turned to Frank Piasecki and said with a pat on the back, “You see Frank, in God’s wonderful sky there is room for both of us.”  All of the pioneers worked hard to sell their products but there did not seem to be the same mud throwing that you see among the politicians and salesmen of today.  There was definitely competition between the early pioneers; but perhaps because it was such a small fraternity the competition was very civilized.

RPM:  Included in this group besides your father and Young were several of the other individuals profiled in the Pioneers Series, notably Frank Piasecki, Charles Kaman and Stanley Hiller.  Collectively this small group of very talented engineers was responsible for tremendous advances in the helicopter industry from the 1940s on.  What common traits made this group so successful and allowed such significant advances in helicopter flight to be realized?

SS:  It’s hard to pinpoint, but probably one of the reasons is the fact that the helicopter was such an unknown entity that the push to improve it and make it a military success and then a commercial success galvanized this group.  The advances in aeronautics and aircraft structures were in no man’s land, meaning that the aerodynamic loads being encountered had never been seen before.  The common traits were enthusiasm, the helicopter was a fairly light and relatively small so quick changes could be made practically overnight without having to spend a billion dollars.  Most of it was a collective enthusiasm, a collective love of the helicopter.  All of these people, the Piaseckis, Kamans and Youngs were confident in the helicopter and the future of the machine.  If there was a common trait it was this belief or absolute conviction in the future of the helicopter.

RPM:  Lately there have been a lot of developments with unmanned aerial vehicles, several companies including Sikorsky are working on high speed helicopters, there is ongoing work in lighter and stronger materials and technology continues to advance in avionics.  Where do you see helicopter development going in the next 20 years?

SS:  I think there are probably two divergent movements.  One is to make the helicopter a little less expensive to operate.  This is being done by Robinson, Bell, and Eurocopter mainly in the two place and four place helicopters. I think that you’re going to see them developing and going through some technical improvements to make them less expensive.  The other line of attack is going to be to develop helicopters with higher cruising speeds.  Sikorsky has the X-2 which is currently unofficially holding the world helicopter speed record.  So I would say two areas, making the small helicopters cheaper and increasing the cruise speeds of the larger helicopters.

RPM:  Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation has been and continues to be one of the premier helicopter manufacturers in the world with some of the most successful helicopter designs ever developed to include the S-58, H-3 and H-60 variants.  What has made the company your father started so successful and able to continually stay at the front of such a competitive industry?

SS:  Some of the designs were so technically advanced they became used around the world.  The S-61 or H-3 was one of these great advances, at one time the S-61 was being built in the US, Canada, England , Italy and Japan.  It was being built under license because it was such a world leader of a helicopter.  Then you have the H-60 and all its variants the Blackhawk, Seahawk, Jayhawk and the others.  With all due respect to the other great designs, the H-60 might turn out to be the DC-3 of helicopters.  Over 2800 have been built and the number may top 3000 by the end of the year.  Licensed production is now starting in Poland.  I think we’ll be building them for another three to five years.  This has become another world leader and a very successful utility machine.

I think the answer is that the legacy of Igor Sikorsky did influence a great many of the young engineers as they entered the workforce at Sikorsky Aircraft.  Many of the senior engineers of today were influenced by my father in one way or another.  Over years the atmosphere or esprit de corps has played a big part, it is significant that Sikorsky has been able to maintain a place as one of the industry leaders over the last 50 years.  There may be a secret to it but I’m not sure what it is.  To me it has been the engineering honesty.  Sikorsky has never accepted a contract in which they thought that they were being asked to do too much.  We’ve gone up to edge of technology yes, but when we’ve thought it couldn’t be done we’ve said so and people have taken notice of that.  This has really helped build Sikorsky’s reputation.  I am very happy that the company continues to be at the front of the industry.

RPM:  Over the years you’ve been involved in many helicopter projects in many different countries.  What has been your most memorable helicopter moment?

SS:  My most memorable helicopter moments are two, one as a pilot and one in my professional career.  One of my mostSergei Skorsky X2 memorable moments was many years ago when I was still current in the S-58/H-34.  I had one of those flights where you are red hot and you know it.  It was a great day and I was leaving the Sikorsky factory and the helicopter and I were fused into one.  Pilots just know when they’re having one of these flights and you maybe get a handful in a lifetime.  I had one of those flights were the pilot and helicopter are bonded and it was just great to be flying like that.

The other would be when we were advised by the German government that Sikorsky had won an eight year evaluation and the German government had decided to build the Ch-53 under license.  It was a highly competitive process not only financially but also at very high diplomatic levels.  There were several solid competitors including a French helicopter and Boeing was also involved.  I headed the marketing campaign for about eight years in Germany and the United States so this was a big win both for me personally and for the company. 

Writer’s Note:

I first envisioned the Rotorcraft Pioneers Series as a few articles that would showcase some of the work done by the early pioneers.  It grew into a yearlong series that gave me the chance to tell some tremendous stories of dedication, perseverance and ingenuity.  The series was never intended to be all inclusive and there are others who were not profiled that have made significant contributions to the rotorcraft world.  I’d like to thank all the people who have made the Rotorcraft Pioneers Series possible.  The many aviation museums, historical societies, individuals and companies who supported my research and provided the documents and pictures that made allowed me to tell these stories.  Without the time that these individuals gave to my endeavor these articles would not have been possible.  I also appreciate the efforts of Ron Whitney and Dana Maxfield for encouraging me to do this and for always making my stories look so good.  Lastly I couldn’t have done this without my biggest supporter and number one proof reader, my wife Monica.