EXPLORATIONS -March 27, 2002: Igor Sikorsky
By Marilyn Rice Christiano
Now, the VOA Special English program, EXPLORATIONS. Today Shirley Griffith and Steve Ember tell about
Igor Sikorsky. He was a leader in designing and building new kinds of aircraft.
Igor Sikorsky was born in the city of Kiev, Russia, on May Twenty-Fifth, Eighteen-Eighty -Nine. His mother was
a doctor. His father was a professor of psychology.
Igor became interested in science when he was very young. He was especially interested in
the possibilities of human flight. As a ten-year-old boy, he started building toy flying
machines out of paper and bamboo.
One was a helicopter. Igor turned the blades and held them in place with a thin piece of
rubber. When he let go of the rubber, the blades turned in the opposite direction. And the little
helicopter flew around the room.
Igor dreamed of building a real helicopter. But he had little hope. Later he said: "I had read with great interest the
stories of French writer Jules Verne. In some of the stories, Verne described a helicopter. Many intelligent
people, however, said such a machine would never fly. So I decided my dream would remain just that."
Sikorsky entered the naval college in St. Petersburg. Then he studied engineering at the Polytechnic Institute in
Kiev. He did not know that -- a few years earlier -- Americans Orville and Wilbur Wright had succeeded in
In Nineteen-Oh-Eight, Sikorsky traveled to Germany with his father. He saw a picture in a newspaper of Orville
Wright and his airplane. "Within twenty-four hours," he said, "I decided to change my life's work. I would study
The next year, Sikorsky went to Paris. At that time, Paris was the center of aviation in Europe. Sikorsky met
several French pilots, including Louis Bleriot, the first person to fly across the English Channel. The pilots gave
him advice about building successful airplanes.
Sikorsky returned home to Kiev after learning all he could in Paris. He decided to build a helicopter, even though
many experts said it was not possible.
He tested his first helicopter in Nineteen-Oh-Nine. It weighed too much and had too little power. It could not get
off the ground. He tested his second helicopter a year later. That one could lift itself off the ground. But it was not
powerful enough to lift a pilot, too. After these failures, Sikorsky decided to work on airplanes, instead.
His technique was unusual. First, he drew pictures of a plane. Then he built it. Finally, he trained himself to fly it.
In this way, he quickly discovered any problems in the design and was able to correct them.
The first plane Sikorsky designed and built was called the S-Two. He tested it in the summer of Nineteen-Ten.
Just two years later, another Sikorsky plane -- the S -Six -- won the highest prize at an aviation show in Moscow.
Sikorsky's success helped win him a job as head of the airplane division of the Russian Baltic Railroad Car
Works. That is where he developed his first major new airplane design.
Planes at that time had only one engine. Sometimes, a plane's propeller pulled masses of flying insects into the
engine. The engine stopped, and the plane crashed. Sikorsky thought planes would be safer if they had more than
one engine. So he designed a plane with four engines. He called it "The Grand."
Sikorsky's plane was revolutionary. It was the first to have more than one engine. It was the first to have a closed
area for the pilot and passengers. And it was the first to have a toilet.
After designing "The Grand," Sikorsky designed an even bigger airplane. He called it the "Ilia Mourometz," the
name of a famous Russian who lived in the Tenth century. He made a military version of this plane. It became the
most successful bomber used in World War One.
Igor Sikorsky left Russia at the start of the revolution in Nineteen-Seventeen. He stayed for a while in Britain and
France. Then he went to the United States.
He arrived with little money and no real chances for work. America's aviation industry was new and very small.
There were no jobs.
In Nineteen-Twenty-Three, however, he got help from a group of Russian exiles in the United States. They gave
him enough money to start his own aviation company, Sikorsky Aero Engineering. It was on Long Island east of
New York City.
Sikorsky's greatest success during this period was designing seaplanes. These planes could land on ground or on
water. They could fly long distances. The Pan American airline company used them to fly from North America to
Central and South America.
In Nineteen-Twenty-Nine, the Sikorsky company became part of the United Aircraft Corporation. The reorganized
company produced a series of large planes known as flying boats.
These planes were big enough and powerful enough to fly across oceans. They made it possible to move people
and goods quickly from the United States to Europe and Asia. Passengers on flying boats rested in soft seats.
They ate hot meals. Air travel had become fun, as well as safe.
By Nineteen-Thirty-Eight, Igor Sikorsky decided to experiment with helicopters again. It had been thirty years
since his first unsuccessful attempts. Through those years, he had written down ideas for possible new designs.
The first helicopter Sikorsky built in America was the V-S-Three-Hundred. It was a skeleton of steel tubes. In its
first test flight, it rose about a meter off the ground. Sikorsky then tested nineteen more designs.
The final design had one main rotator, or rotor. The rotor was connected to three long blades on top. These blades
turned around like an album on a record player. They lifted the helicopter into the air. A smaller rotor, with
shorter blades, was at the back end. Those blades turned around like the wheel of a car. They kept the body of the
helicopter pointed forward.
This remained the basic design of all Sikorsky helicopters.
By Nineteen-Forty-One, the V -S-Three-Hundred had set all world records for
helicopter flight. Military versions were made and some were used in the last years
of World War Two. Most people, however, still did not accept the new flying
machine. They said the helicopter had to prove its worth.
It did that during the war in Korea in the early Nineteen-Fifties.
Helicopters take off straight into the air. They can land just about anywhere. They do not need long airport
runways like planes. During the Korean War, helicopters flew into battle areas to rescue wounded soldiers. They
flew the men quickly to medical centers set up away from the fighting. This greatly improved the men's chances
Igor Sikorsky, the man most responsible for successfully designing and building helicopters, thought helicopters
would be a common form of transportation. People, he said, would use them instead of automobiles. They would
fly into a city, land on top of a building, go to work, then fly home again.
This has not happened. Privately-owned helicopters are not common. Yet helicopters have proved their value in
Companies use them to transport heavy equipment to hard-to-reach places. Farmers use them to put insect
poisons on their crops. And emergency teams use them to rescue people from fires and floods.
Igor Sikorsky continued as an engineering adviser to his aircraft company until he died in Nineteen-Seventy-
Two. He was one of the best-known and most respected leaders in international aviation. He received more than
ninety major awards and honors from many countries and organizations.
He always said, however, that his greatest satisfaction did not come from receiving honors. It did not come from
being the first person to design new kinds of aircraft. Igor Sikorsky said his greatest satisfaction came from
knowing that his helicopters were responsible for saving lives.
This Special English program was written by Marilyn Rice Christiano. Your narrators were Shirley Griffith and
Steve Ember. I'm Ray Freeman. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the VOICE
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