VOL. 13 March ISSUE YEAR 2012
Off the Beaten Track
in Vol. 13 - March Issue - Year 2012
A Pesky Mosquito
The Sikorsky S-22
Igor pulled back on the control stick and the plane lifted into the air, as it had done on the previous four exhibition flights. When the aircraft had reached an altitude of about one-hundred meters, the engine stopped without warning and the nose of the craft dipped. The plane was too low to return and attempt a landing on the grass airstrip from which it had just taken off, so Igor was forced to make a crash landing at a nearby railroad yard. The pilot was lucky and escaped with only a few bruises, but the aircraft was a complete wreck. When the engine was disassembled to determine the cause of the malfunction, it was discovered that a mosquito had gotten into the fuel tank and had wound up blocking the flow of fuel to the carburetor.
Igor Sikorsky was born in 1889 in Kiev, Ukraine, at that time under the Russian Empire. He developed a strong interest for science and for the arts thanks to his father, who was a doctor and a psychology professor, and to his mother, a medical school graduate who homeschooled her son and introduced him to the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Jules Verne. He soon developed an interest for mechanics and for aviation, building his first model airplanes and a rubber band-powered model helicopter by the age of twelve.
Between the ages of fourteen and nineteen, Igor attended three different types of school, alternately attracted to the Russian Naval Academy, to a private school in Paris and to the Kiev Polytechnic Institute. In 1908 he accompanied his father on a trip to Germany, where he learned about the Wright brothers’ first flight. This news struck him like a lightening bolt and he decided then and there to dedicate himself completely to the study of aviation. He would not look back after that.
In 1909 Sikorsky enrolled at the School of Aeronautical Technology and Automotive Construction in Paris, at that time the center of aviation studies and technology. There he had the opportunity to speak with the most famous aviation pioneers in the world, soaking up all he could from their experiences and putting his own ideas to the test. He became obsessed with the idea of vertical flight and started experimenting with different designs for model helicopters. A few months later he returned to Kiev, where he built his first full scale helicopter. The attempt was unsuccessful and Igor realized that he lacked sufficient know-how, material and money. He set the idea aside and turned his attention to fixed wing aircraft.
The first two airplanes built by Sikorsky, named S-1 and S-2, and which he had modeled on existing aircraft types, lacked sufficient power to take off or fly more than a few feet off the ground. This forced him to completely rethink his designs and his basic concepts. After experimenting with a few other models, in April 1911 Igor came out with the S-5, a two-seater which was not based on the design of other planes built in Europe. He tested this model extensively and the plane proved to be reliable. A few months later, Sikorsky was confident enough with the S-5 to begin carrying passengers. And yet, and yet…
And yet it had been with an S-5 that the mosquito episode had occurred, fortunately when there was no passenger on board. This incident made Sikorsky realize that the single-engine design of all aircraft built up to that moment made the plane and its pilot too vulnerable to disaster in case of an engine failure, a frequent event in those years. He therefore embarked upon an ambitious project to design and build a multi-engine plane which would be able to continue flying even if one of the engines failed. The result was the S-21, which Sikorsky nicknamed “Le Grand”, the likes of which nobody had ever seen before. It was quickly followed by an improved version, the S-22, a four-engine biplane, twenty meters long and capable of carrying sixteen passengers with a three-man crew. It was equipped with an insulated cabin, a washroom, heating and even had a walkway on top of the fuselage for the passengers to take a stroll outside!
But just as Igor’s fortunes were beginning to take off, the dark clouds of the First World War and the Russian Revolution forced him to abandon his homeland and to seek a future in aviation as an emigrant.
But that’s another story…
By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN & Sales Manager, Pometon Abrasives
Author: Giovanni Gregorat