On Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Role in Developing World’s First Helicopter

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Igor Sikorsky, known outside of Russia as Mr Helicopter, made a small rubber band-powered helicopter at age 12. Forty years later, a machine of his design became the world's first mass-produced helicopter. Yet few know, the model he had designed might have never seen the light of day if not for the help of another Russian, a famous composer who had nothing to do with aviation.

As a child, Igor Sikorsky liked to listen to his mother's stories about Leonardo da Vinci. Many inventions were attributed - the first parachute, bicycle, tank, searchlight and even a robot. The boy was particularly fascinated by the idea of an 'iron bird' capable of lifting a man into the sky with a propeller and no acceleration. As a child, he was always making something in the yard of his father's manor.

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In the early twentieth century, the first flights by the Wright Brothers and Earl Zeppelin's dirigible made headlines. Inspired by their example, the young man decided to make engineering his hobby. He attended the Duvigner de Lanno Technical School in Paris, and on his return, he enrolled at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute in 1907.

The Aeronautical Society had just been opened at the institute, where enthusiastic students conducted experiments with flying machines. Sikorsky was inspired by his desire to make Leonardo's dream of a helicopter come true. It is necessary to say that the father of Ihor Ivanovich - a world-famous psychiatrist and professor of Kyiv University - fully supported his son's interests. So without any hesitation, the family allocated him money for training with the famous French aviator Ferdinand Ferber and the purchase of two small engines. By the way, the maestro became the young man's first flight instructor - unlike many designers, Sikorsky piloted most of his inventions himself.

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Back in Russia, he worked day and night on the helicopter. The design turned out to be spectacular - a rectangular wooden cage with an engine on one side and a pilot's seat on the other. The two-bladed propellers, 4.6m and 5m in diameter rotated in different directions. The apparatus could not take to the air due to the lack of a powerful engine, but its experiments provided valuable information for further work. The second helicopter was able to take off, but the pilot's weight was no longer sustained. Sikorsky decided to take a break from helicopters and plunged into aircraft construction.

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Together with friends from the Aeronautical Society, he began to build aeroplanes and in 1910 took off for the first time in one of them. It is worth noting that the student's machine was only the third aeroplane assembled in Russia. With each new model, he developed a better understanding of how to control the craft in the air, gradually increasing the altitude and duration of the flight. It came down to records. For instance, a young man in his three-seat C-6 biplane broke the world speed record (111 km/h) and was awarded a gold medal at the Moscow Technical Exhibition.

Strange as it may sound, for Igor Ivanovich, the way to success lay through a sledge. Aerosleds. This engineering miracle with the propeller as a propulsor was based on skis and was perfectly suitable for moving across the snowy spaces of Russia. Sikorsky did not invent them, but he proposed the most successful variant of the construction. It was demonstrated to the officers of the General Staff and quickly gained popularity. Serial production of "snow machines" was started by order of the war ministry, and with the beginning of the First World War, they were used at the front.

The fame that the 23-year-old engineer's aeroplane and sledge brought him became head of the design development department and flight tests at the Russo-Baltic Wagon Factory (Russian: Русско-Балтийский вагонный завод, RBVZ), located in St. Petersburg, without his diploma. Sikorsky's significant achievements in aircraft building in Russia are associated with this enterprise.

While his contemporaries were enthusiastically creating light single-engine machines, the young man concluded that building more powerful devices with several engines was necessary. As a result, in 1913, the world's first four-engine aircraft, the Russian Vityaz, was born, giving rise to heavy aviation. Its appearance made it hard to forget where it was made - the cabin resembled a railway carriage. It had two passenger compartments, a storage room and an open area with a machine gun and searchlight. Particular attention was paid to enhancing the reliability and safety of the flight. Igor Ivanovich was the first to completely glaze the cockpit and separate it from the passenger compartment.

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The experts could not believe that such a giant aeroplane would take off, but it did. And then it set a world record for the duration of a flight, 1 hour 54 minutes. Nicholas II wished to inspect the "Russian Vityaz" in person and talked to the designer in his cockpit for about half an hour. In a week, the Tsar sent Sikorsky a gold watch as a present and decorated him with the Order of Saint Vladimir of IV class.

This aeroplane was the predecessor of an even more important invention - the four-engine bomber Ilya Muromets. The three-ton aircraft could carry almost half a tonne of payload, reach a speed of 100 km/h at an altitude of 2,000 metres and fly over 1,200 km. These characteristics made it an ideal long-range bomber during the First World War. More than 90 Ilya Muromets were produced until 1917, and only one of them was shot down during combat operations.

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Sikorsky invented the aeroplanes at RBVZ (light fighters, naval reconnaissance, light reconnaissance fighter, twin-engine fighter-bomber and attack aircraft) won top prizes at military aircraft competitions. The fame was so great that the St Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre staged an opera, Pilot Sikorsky. But when the revolution loomed ahead, all the merits turned against the 25-year-old aircraft designer.

In early 1918, one of his former employees, now working for the Bolsheviks, came to his father's house at night and reported in a hurry: "The situation is hazardous. I have seen the order for you to be shot". It was the time of the Red Terror when people were shot on the spot without trial. And Sikorsky posed a double danger to the Communists: as a friend of the Tsar and a very famous man. He was known all over Petrograd, and many looked up to him as a hero. Nicholas II himself came to the airfield at Tsarskoye Selo to see how the young Russian pilot flew," wrote Sergei Igorevich, the aircraft designer's son.

Less than a month later, Igor Ivanovich left Russia. First, it was London, then Paris, but eventually, the talented engineer settled in the USA. At first, he worked as a mathematics teacher at an evening school for Russian émigrés in New York.

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In 1923 he founded Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation, an aviation company. The workers were a group of Russian émigrés from former pilots, sailors, engineers and mechanics. The company itself was located on the chicken farm of a designer friend in upstate New York. The employees did not see their salaries for months, but there was still not enough money to build the machines. No one knows whether the world would have seen a single-rotor helicopter had the composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff not once visited the workshop. He happened to know about the catastrophic situation of his famous compatriot and decided to offer his help. He wrote a cheque for 5 thousand dollars (by today's money, of course, an entirely different amount) with the words "You will return it when you can". In addition, the musician agreed to become vice-president of the company to attract everyone's attention.

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The following year, the twin-engine S-29-A took to the skies and became the most significant aircraft in America. A few years later, the money was paid back to Rachmaninoff with interest. The firm became well known in the industrial circles of the country, and orders began to come in. By 1939 Ihor Ivanovich designed about 15 aeroplanes, including "flying boats" capable of landing on water. Finally, at the end of the 1930s, he returned to his youthful passion - the helicopter. With new knowledge and experience, he tried to lift the machine vertically upwards without any acceleration for the second time.

The first experimental Vought-Sikorsky VS-300 helicopter lifted off the ground on 14 September 1939. An upgraded version of the first Russian helicopter created by Sikorsky back in 1910, it now had a more powerful engine, a single-rotor design with an automatic tiltrotor and a tail rotor. It was the scheme that eventually became the basic one in the world of helicopter construction. It is the way 90% of helicopters are designed.

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The US Air Force leadership appreciated the invention and ordered the two-seat S-47, which became the world's first mass-produced helicopter and one of the symbols of the American army. The Russian aircraft designer came to world fame. His machines and their countless variations are produced worldwide, used for evacuating wounded soldiers, supplying encircled units and ships, communications, surveillance and artillery fire correction. But the main task of the helicopters, in the opinion of their author, should be search and rescue and sanitation work. According to his son Sergei Sikorsky, his father's helicopters have saved over a million and a half-human lives.

Mr Helicopter has received numerous prizes and awards, some of them presented to him by presidents. One of the first heads of state to actively use a helicopter for personal use was Dwight Eisenhower. When Nikita Khrushchev arrived with a delegation to the USA in 1959, the American offered him a ride to modify the S-58. The First Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee was so stunned by the trip that he asked Eisenhower to sell or present him with a flying machine. As a result, in March 1960, two of Sikorsky's creations arrived in Moscow.

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Igor Ivanovich's successes in Russia were hushed up for a long time - the monarchist and White Russian was erased from engineering textbooks. Popular literature even attributed the authorship of "Ilya Muromets" to the faceless "group of young designers of RBVK". It was only in the 1990s that films, books and articles began to appear about the inventions of the talented engineer.