Igor Sikorsky (25 May 1889 – 26 October 1972) was born Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky (Игорь Иванович Сикорский). Sikorsky was a Russian-American pioneer of aviation who designed and flew the world's first multi-engine fixed-wing aircraft, developed the first of Pan American Airways' ocean-conquering flying boats in the 1930s, and developed the first successful American helicopter.
Sikorsky's father, Ivan Alexeevich Sikorsky, was a professor of psychology from mixed Russian and Polish ethnicity (he was half Polish and half Russian). The origin of the Sikorsky family is in the Polish szlachta that was deported after the failure of the January Uprising. Ivan Alexeevich Sikorsky was a son and grandson of Russian Orthodox Church priests. He held monarchist and Russian nationalist views, and those affected his son's political views.
Igor Sikorsky's mother, Mariya Stefanovna Sikorskaya (nee Temryuk-Cherkasova), who was half Ukrainian (on the paternal side) and half Russian (on the maternal side), was a physician who did not work professionally. While homeschooling young Igor, she gave him a great love for art, especially in the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci, and the stories of Jules Verne. He started to experiment with model flying machines, and, by age 12, he had made a small rubber band-powered helicopter.
Sikorsky studied at the Russian Naval War College in Saint Petersburg from 1903 through 1909, but did not finish formal studies. For a short time, during late 1906 and early 1907, he studied engineering in Paris. In 1908, Sikorsky and his father traveled to Germany; there, he saw a newspaper picture of Orville Wright and his airplane. Sikorsky later said about this event: "Within twenty-four hours, I decided to change my life's work. I would study aviation."
With financial backing from his sister, Sikorsky returned to Paris, in 1909. Paris was then the center of aviation in Europe. He met several French pilots, including Louis Blériot, the first person to fly across the English Channel. Sikorsky returned to Kiev the same year and started to experiment with flying machines.
In 1912, Igor Sikorsky became Chief Engineer in the Russian Baltic Railroad Car Factory in Saint Petersburg. In 1914, he was awarded the Degree in Engineering "Honoris Causa" by Saint Petersburg Polytechnical Institute.
During a demonstration of his record-setting S-5, the plane had to make a forced landing. It was discovered that a mosquito had flown into the gasoline and been drawn into the carburetor. The close call convinced Sikorsky of the need for an aircraft that could continue flying if it lost an engine. . His next aircraft, the S-6 utilized two engines and was selected by the Russian Army.
Other early work included the construction, as chief engineer, of the first four-engine aircraft, the Bolshoi Baltiski, which he called Le Grand. He was also the test pilot for its first flight, on 13 May 1913. Sikorsky's planes were used by Russia as bombers in World War I — for example, the Ilya Muromets, the world's first four-engined bomber. He was decorated with the Order of St. Vladimir.
After World War I, Igor Sikorsky briefly became an engineer for the French forces in Russia during the Russian Civil War. Seeing little opportunity for himself as an aircraft designer in war-torn Europe (and particularly Russia, ravaged by the October Revolution and Civil War), he emigrated to the United States in 1919.
In the United States, Sikorsky first worked as a school teacher and a lecturer, while looking for an opportunity in the aviation industry. In 1923, helped by several former Russian army officers, he formed the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Company. Among Sikorsky's chief supporters was composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who introduced himself by writing a check for $5,000 [roughly $61,000 in 2007 dollars]. Though his prototype was damaged in its first test flight, Sikorsky persuaded his reluctant backers to invest another $2,500; with it, he produced the S-29, one of the first twin-engine planes in America, with a capacity for 14 passengers and a speed of 115 mph. The performance of the S-29, slow though it was compared to military aircraft of even 1918, proved to be a "make or break" moment for Sikorsky's funding.
Sikorsky had experimented unsuccessfully with helicopter-type flying machines while in Russia. He brought his work to fruition on 14 September 1939 with the first flight of the Vought-Sikorsky VS-300, a machine with a single three-blade rotor and three tail rotors powered by a 75 horsepower (56 kW) engine. Its first free (untethered) flight was on 1940 May 26. The VS-300 was the first successful American helicopter to fly.