Ninety years on, Sergei Sikorsky still remembers his first flight.
“I sat on my father’s lap,” the 98-year-old recalls. “I watched the world suddenly come below me. I will never forget that moment.”
The father in question was one Igor Sikorsky, the Ukrainian engineer who emigrated to the United States following World War One, and forever changed the nature of aviation with his radical machines capable of vertical take-off and landing.
The company that bears his name, now a subsidiary of American military airframer Lockheed Martin, is marking its centennial anniversary this year.
Among the firm’s historic accomplishments over the past 100 years are the development of the first practical helicopter, the world’s first production helicopter, the first service helicopter for the US military and the first non-stop transatlantic helicopter flight – from New York to the Paris air show in 1967.
Two Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giants belonging to a US Air Force search and rescue squadron made that flight to Le Bourget, spanning more than 30 hours and nine in-flight refuellings by a Lockheed HC-130P tanker. Both Igor and Sergei Sikorsky met the aircraft in Paris when they arrived on the first day of June.
Igor Sikorsky was already an accomplished aerospace engineer when he arrived in America from Kyiv in 1919, fleeing the Russian Civil War. At 24-years-old he had in1913 built the world’s first multi-engined aircraft in czarist Russia; a four-engined passenger biplane called the S-21 Grand.
Sikorsky’s American aerospace venture began in 1923 on a small chicken farm east of New York City. The fledgling enterprise soon moved to Queens and started producing seaplanes in 1926.
The flight Sergei Sikorsky remembers so vividly launched from the Long Island Sound in 1934 aboard one of the company’s S-38 pontoon aircraft. The younger Sikorsky recalls at age six or seven watching ground mechanics work the hand crank engine start on an S-40 Clipper flying boat.
“You can never forget that sound and that sight,” he says. “The whine of an inertial starter engine, and then the barking and the smoking and the belching, and the blue smoke coming out.”
The young Sergei turned to his father and asked if he could have a job “cranking up” engines when he was older.
While he would eventually become a pilot, the junior Sikorsky reveals in the present day that he never got a job hand starting engines. The reason was the invention of the electric starter, whose creator Sergei jokingly describes with an expletive in the present day.
“I lost my first job before I even had it,” he laments.
By that time, the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation had settled in its present day home of Stratford, Connecticut and been purchased by United Aircraft and Transport – a holding company that at the time controlled both Boeing and Pratt & Whitney.
By 1938, the Sikorsky enterprise had achieved some commercial success, particularly with the S-38 and S-40, which were operated by Pan American Airways. Igor, however, saw the future elsewhere, and began seriously pursuing his concept for vertical flight.
Reoragnised as Vought-Sikorsky after a corporate restructuring, the company soon began work on fabricating its founder’s outlandish vision for a small aircraft using a top-mounted rotor to generate both vertical lift and horizontal airspeed.
By 1939, the first VS-300 prototype helicopter was lifting off from a field in Connecticut.
In contrast to the almost mundane nature of vertical flight today, it was clear even to the young Sergei that the aerospace establishment of the time was not onboard with his father’s vision.
“When he would speak about the helicopter, it was evident that there was a great deal of scepticism”, Sergei recalls. That incredulity, he notes, extended to many of the engineers working at Sikorsky.
“There is no doubt that it was built in spite of the prevailing opinion at the time,” Sergei says of the company’s early prototype.
Despite the prevailing attitude, Sergei says Igor Sikorsky always remained adamant the helicopter would be a transformative and successful technology. He was particularly certain of the concept’s potential for emergency medical response.
“The helicopter will prove to be a unique instrument in the saving of human lives,” Sergei recalls his father saying during those early development efforts.
The younger Sikorsky, who went on to serve in a US Coast Guard experimental helicopter squadron during the Second World War, admits there were periods of frustration when solving early engineering problems, such as excess vibration.
However, he says the “glacier-like mind” of Igor always managed to scour away any obstacles to his vision, whether technical or financial.
“Once he outlined a problem, he was going to solve that problem no matter what,” Sergei says. “Even the experts can be wrong,” he adds with a chuckle and the benefit of hindsight.
Sergei’s first look at helicopter came in 1939, during testing of the VS-300 prototype. War had just erupted in Europe, he recalls, when he went out to a field on Sikorsky’s industrial campus in Stratford.
After spending the afternoon watching a VS-300 conduct a series of take-off, hover and land manoeuvers, “I was frankly very much impressed”, he says.
In a move that would likely confound aviation safety regulators and child welfare officers today, Sergei soon took his first helicopter ride by hanging on the exterior landing strut of the VS-300.
By that time, the younger Sikorsky was pursuing his own fixed-wing pilot’s license. He remembers thinking how his father’s invention was seemingly in direct defiance of a flight instructor’s urging that horizontal airspeed was essential to maintaining lift.
“Here was my father once again confounding the sceptics and literally hanging in the air,” Sergei says today.
During the war, the son of Igor Sikorsky made his own milestone contribution to rotary aviation.
Sergei’s New York-based Coast Guard squadron was experimenting with how the new helicopter technology could be applied for military uses. While there, the unit’s commanding officer – Commander Frank Erickson – conceived of and built the first helicopter-mounted rescue hoist.
Erickson is credited by the US Naval Institute as the first designated helicopter pilot in naval aviation history. At 18 years old, Sergei Sikorsky played what he describes as a “very minor role” in proving its utility.
“Frank Erickson thought that it would be a good idea to generate confidence in the rescue hoist by having Igor Sikorsky’s son demonstrate by hanging underneath the helicopter,” he says with pride in his voice.
It was a fitting way for the younger Sikorsky to carry on the family legacy. Of all Igor Sikorsky’s engineering and entrepreneurial achievements, Sergei notes his father was most proud of the role the helicopter assumed in medical rescue.
Rotary aircraft took on a prominent role as a medevac platform during the 1950-1953 Korean War, with the Sikorsky S-51 seeing combat service with the US Army and US Marine Corps.
After the war ended, Sergei says his father took great pride in the helicopter’s part in the conflict. Whenever a former pilot visited the Sikorsky plant in Stratford, Sergei notes, Igor would invite them to his office above the factory and “ask literally for every possible detail” of their medevac missions in Korea.
“He was literally beaming with pride and with satisfaction, as he listened to these pilots describe their medevac missions and the lifesaving of the helicopter,” Sergei recalls of his father.
Igor Sikorsky would then no doubt be pleased with the legacy of his namesake company. Sikorsky produces the UH-60 Black Hawk, whose many variants and derivatives have filled search and rescue and medical evacuation roles for the US armed forces for the past 40 years.
Under the umbrella of Lockheed Martin, Sikorsky is also under contract to deliver the HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter to the US Air Force; the Pentagon’s first purpose-built medevac rotorcraft.
In January, Sikorsky delivered the 5,000th example of its iconic Black Hawk type.
“The Black Hawk and all of our other products represent an incredible culture of innovation that’s been with us since the company was started by our founder, Igor Sikorsky, over 100 years ago,” president Paul Lemmo said during a ceremony in Stratford to mark to occasion.
Sikorsky is also producing the S-70 direct commercial sale variant of the H-60 at its PZL Mielec facility in Poland, and in an interview Lemmo says the company soon expects to deliver the 100th model to European customers.
Orders from Europe and elsewhere are taking on increasing importance for Sikorsky, following the loss of the US Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft competition to rival Bell earlier this year.
“We still have very strong product lines, obviously,” Lemmo said in an interview ahead of the Paris air show. “Led by the Black Hawk, which we see as having a pretty solid future.”
Sikorsky is currently producing UH-60s under the company’s 10th multi-year contract with the US Army. That deal covers up to 255 aircraft through 2027, for both the Pentagon and Foreign Military Sales-programme customers.
Lemmo says there is currently “robust demand for the Black Hawk around the world”, citing an order this year from Australia covering 40 aircraft. Spain and Norway have also expressed their intent to acquire the maritime variant of the type – Sikorsky’s MH-60R Seahawk.
“I think that many militaries are looking for a proven platform that has stood the test of time through various conflicts,” he adds.
The US Army has also floated the possibility of extending production of new UH-60s through 2033. At the Army Aviation Association of America conference in Nashville, Tennessee in April, service leaders indicated the army plans to continue flying its Black Hawks until at least 2060.
All that means not just continued new orders for Sikorsky, but major modernisation work to keep legacy UH-60s in the air and capable of operating alongside the next generation of army rotorcraft currently being developed.
“We think there’s a strong future for Black Hawk, as well as the S-70,” Lemmo says.
Sikorksy is also charging toward full-rate production of the heavy-lift CH-53 King Stallion helicopter for the US Marine Corps, and continuing advanced prototyping on the Raider X design the company is competing for the US Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) contract.
Intended to replace the mothballed Bell OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopter, FARA once again pits Sikorsky against Textron-subsidiary Bell. As for FLRAA, Sikorsky is pitching a FARA design based on the company’s radical X2 line of compound coaxial rotorcraft.
Lemmo remains confident in what he calls the “transformative” nature of the X2 design, and its ability to deliver on the army’s FARA performance requirements.
“The feedback we received from the army let us know that the agility, stability and scalability of our X2 can be extremely useful in contested areas, particularly the survivability of [the aircraft],” Lemmo said in April, following the FLRAA decision.
Elsewhere, the company is staying true to the boundary-expanding dreams of its founder, pursuing two lines of effort Lemmo describes as revolutionary.
Partnering with the secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Sikorsky have developed prototype helicopters capable of flying autonomously, without a pilot.
In 2022, Sikorsky completed multiple pilotless flights of a UH-60 using the company’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System and Matrix flight control software. Those flights included a simulated casualty evacuation, battlefield resupply and cargo sling load.
The autonomous technology will also be deployed on another Sikorsky project: a hybrid-electric demonstrator the company is developing in collaboration with GE Aerospace. Dubbed Hex, the platform will pair a GE CT7 turboshaft engine with a 1MW generator.
Lemmo says the goal is to produce an “S-76-class aircraft” that will prove the utility of hybrid-electric propulsion for conventional vertical lift uses.
“What we want to do is build something that has dual use purpose for military and civilian,” he says, noting Sikorsky does not believe current fully-electric propulsion technology is ready for the rigours of military operations.
The Hex demonstrator could fly as early as 2026, with a range of some 500nm (926km) and a maximum gross weight of 3,175kg (7,000lb).
Lemmo thinks the coming advancements in both capable electric propulsion and autonomous flight signal big changes across the industry.
“There is definitely a revolution going on in vertical lift right now,” he says.
Igor Sikorsky would no doubt be pleased to see that spirit of innovation alive and well at the company bearing his name, and the aerospace industry writ large.
“Nothing can equal the work of free men,” he is quoted as saying, in the company archives.
Sergei paraphrases another of his father’s quotes when trying to distil the life of the pioneering engineer and aviator who raised him.
“If there is such a thing as a legacy, the legacy of Igor Sikorsky is the ability of a human being to dream up a new machine,” he says.