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My father's fate

Sergei Sikorsky /USA/  

He was Russia's national hero, the designer of the first in history Russkii Vityaz and the Ilya Muromets multi-engine giant planes. In spite of all that, Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky was forced to leave Russia.

What was his motivation? What was the fate of this distinguished person after he had left St. Petersburg for good?

We asked his son, who is now living in the United States of America, to answer these questions. Sergei Igorevich is continuing his father's cause, representing the firm set up by Igor Ivanovich in different countries. He comes to Russia two or three times a year. He immediately responded to our magazine's request to talk about Igor Ivanovich.

Our talk with Sergei Igorevich took place in St. Petersburg at the Grand Hotel Europe. It was in Russian, which son-Sikorsky speaks perfectly.

- "Igor Ivanovich left Russia because they threatened to shoot him," said Sergei Igorevich. "In early 1918 one of his former colleagues, who was then collaborating with the Bolsheviks, came to his place late at night and said: "The situation is very dangerous. I saw a warrant to shoot you." That was the time of the "red terror," when people were shot on the spot, without a court ruling. Sikorsky was twice as dangerous for the communists: he was both the Tsar's friend and a very popular person. All of St. Petersburg knew him, many people believed he was a hero. Tsar Nicholas II himself visited the airfield in Tsarskoye Selo to watch the young Russian pilot's flights.

Krasnoye Selo. May, 1913. Demonstration of the Russky Vityaz aeroplane to Nicholas II
Krasnoye Selo. May, 1913. Demonstration of the Russky Vityaz aeroplane to Nicholas II

After he had received the danger warning, Igor Ivanovich went to Murmansk. From there, on a small English steamship, he went to Liverpool, then to Paris. The French received him very warmly and offered him a contract right away. It was a contract for the design of a new, even more powerful Muromets-type plane. For almost a year my father had been working on this project. But in November of 1918 the war ended and the French government stopped subsidizing military orders. My father spent a few more months in Paris and then, in early 1919, he immigrated to America."

- Why did he choose America of all countries?

- He made this decision because he deeply believed that Russia and America had a lot in common. Both of them are big countries with vast spaces that are difficult to cover without planes. He believed that America needed planes as badly as Russia. One should not forget that the Russian Vityaz, as well as the first two models of the Ilya Muromets, were passenger planes, which were turned into fighter planes only at the beginning of the war.

- It is common knowledge that for Sikorsky, his first years in America were difficult

 St.Petersburg. I. Sikorsky and a group of aviators (sixth from the right), 1913
St.Petersburg. I. Sikorsky and a group of aviators (sixth from the right), 1913

- Yes, it was a hard time. Military orders stopped. One could buy a wartime plane for peanuts at that time. Nobody wanted to give him any money for designing new planes. My father was earning his living by giving lectures and lessons. He was teaching astronomy, physics, maths and sometimes Russian. Over the course of two or three years, with the help of the Russian colony in New York, Igor Ivanovich and his friends built a plane. Russian emigres raised money for it: some gave five dollars, others a hundred. At a critical moment the famous composer Rachmaninoff helped significantly by giving five thousand dollars. The first plane was built in a hen-house that belonged to a Russian White Army officer. This hen-house was situated on the edge of an airfield and through an opening in the wall, the plane could go right out onto it. The plane, which was called the S-29, turned out to be very successful. For that time it was a giant - one of the biggest and heaviest planes and it could carry 18 passengers. That was the beginning of the Sikorsky firm.

- How would you appraise Sikorsky's and his associates' contribution to the formation of the American aircraft industry?

- In America, he became a pioneer in two ways. First, he was the designer of a heavy, fast cargo carrying clipper-type plane, or hydroaeroplane, which could land on water. He built a series of such clippers. These 4-engine giants equipped the Pan American company, which became one of our major clients. Pan American was buying whole series of Sikorsky's planes that were flying along new transcontinental routes - across the Caribbean Sea and to Southern Europe. Sikorsky's hydroaeroplanes were the first planes to fly over the ocean.

USA. 14-th September, 1939. Helicopter's first take off. Pilot - I. Sikorsky
USA. 14-th September, 1939. Helicopter's first take off. Pilot - I. Sikorsky

The second and more well known pioneering activities had to do with helicopters. Sikorsky started designing them in 1939. By that time he had come to the conclusion that the era of flying boats was coming to an end. Many airfields had been built so that in the near future there would be no need to land planes on water and ordinary "land landing" planes would be able to fly over the ocean. It was time for decisions: whether to start competing with the then existing corporations like Boeing and Douglas, or find a new niche in the market and start doing something that nobody had ever done before. Sikorsky chose the latter and began designing helicopters. Even his closest associates weren't sure if they would be in demand. But just at that time America entered World War II and, right away, there appeared the need for machines that could fly over jungles and over water and that could rescue people in emergencies, etc. The American government started buying Sikorsky's helicopters. During the war, the company made fighter planes which were used for saving shot down pilots, for guarding ships, and so on. When the war was over, the production of rescue helicopters continued, while, at the same time, we were making passenger helicopters for different airlines in America and Europe. Sikorsky's helicopters made a contribution not only to the American industry but to the world industry as well. After Sikorsky had demonstrated such possibilities for building helicopters, they started building them all over the world. One may say that the entire world helicopter industry was set up on Sikorsky's shoulders. Sikorsky's helicopters were built by licence in England, France, Germany, Italy and Japan simultaneously. Nothing like that had ever taken place in the history of world aviation.

-What was Igor Ivanovich's attitude to Russia? Did he ever miss St. Petersburg, his friends or his associates?

- He always loved Russia and the Russian people. He dreamed of the day when he would be able to go there safely. He also loved St. Petersburg very much. It was in this city that he had accomplished his first important project in aviation - he created the Russkii Vityaz planes and then the entire series of the Ilya Muromets. He worked at the Russo-Balt plant where he met his friends and associates. For instance, he often remembered Nikolai Polikarpov, who later became a famous aircraft designer. When my father met him, Polikarpov was a young student, but he sensed that he had talent. Later, Polikarpov designed the famous machines called U-2, also known as the "kukuruzniks."

-I know that among the employees of the Sikorsky firm in America there were natives of St. Petersburg. Can you tell me about them?

-The Sikorsky firm is a Russian firm that has always employed Russian specialists. Among them there were citizens of St. Petersburg. For instance: the brothers Mikhail and Sergei Glukharev. Before the revolution they had been very wealthy, successful merchants who owned a house in Finland. The older brother, Mikhail Yevgenyevich, was my father's right hand as an engineer and designer. The younger brother, Sergei Yevgenyevich, was a talented administrator and he headed the engineering department.

My father's friend was another native of St. Petersburg - Boris Vassilyevich Sergiyevsky. He was a remarkable pilot. During World War I he shot down 8 or 10 German planes. Sergiyevsky was my father's chief assistant and chief testing pilot. I remember my first flight. I was 7 or 8 years old and I was sitting in my father's lap in the cockpit of a small 10-seater S-38 amphibian plane, Sergiyevsky was the captain. It was a wonderful crew!

Another of my father's first associates was Alexander Nikolayevich Prokofief-Seversky from St. Petersburg. He was a naval pilot. He worked with my father during the most difficult times. Subsequently, Igor Ivanovich founded his company, and Seversky his own company. They weren't competitors. Igor Ivanovich focused on the construction of heavy passenger liners, while Seversky began making fighter planes.

-What is the Sikorsky Company today? Can you speak about its business contacts with Russia?

-The Sikorsky Aircraft Company is working very successfully. It is still one of the major helicopter producers in the world. It has a designing bureau and the General Constructor who succeeded my father. The Sikorsky company joined the large, highly technological corporation United Technologies, which is uniting a whole network of independent companies all over the world.

We have a great desire to work with Russian aircraft companies. We have established good contacts with the TsAGI and with the Mill OKB. We haven't started joint production yet, but we are starting to exchange ideas. At the moment, the Sikorsky Company does not have any strong partners in St. Petersburg, because helicopters are largely designed in Moscow. But we'll most likely start buying engines for the Sikorsky helicopters that are made in St. Petersburg.

-Where did Igor Ivanovich live in St. Petersburg? What places were especially dear to him?

-- My father had a flat not far from the Commandant's Aerodrome. That district was badly damaged during the last war and today there are new streets and new houses there. On the airfield itself he had a tiny wooden cabin, where he used to live for 3 or 4 days in a row. During the war he often didn't have time to go home. He used to sleep for 3 hours and then worked again: the Muromets planes were made at the Russo-Balt plant and the parts were transported to the airfield. They were assembled under the open sky and shipped to the front.

My father loved the centre of St. Petersburg and Peterhof. He adored classical music and he used to visit the Philharmonic hall in his free time. He loved paintings and used to visit the Hermitage with pleasure.

Interviewer Natalia Odintsova

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