VOL. 13 May ISSUE YEAR 2012
Off the Beaten Track
in Vol. 13 - May Issue - Year 2012
The Piano Player
The Sikorsky S-29A
Rachmaninoff (center) and Sikorsky (right)
Daylight did not last long during that chilly late autumn month. The workers had to get as much done as they could while the sun illuminated the open field. An early light snow had fallen and the temperature was dropping day by day. The men had to stop every few minutes to warm their hands by the bonfire, which was burning nearby. As he hammered intently on a metal pipe, the apprentice, a young boy of only sixteen, raised his head in surprise as he noticed that the other workers had stopped and were staring at something behind his back. Almost fearful of what he would see, he turned around very cautiously. What he saw was a long, black limousine, immaculately clean and shining in the strong sunlight. A man was stepping out through the car door, which was held open by a uniformed driver. The visitor was tall and was elegantly dressed in black trousers and a long black coat, the collar of which was turned up against the cold breeze blowing from the north. His shiny black leather shoes made a soft crunching noise on the thin layer of packed snow as he strode towards the workers, a wry and pleasant smile on his face.
When Igor Sikorsky fled his native Ukraine in 1919 to escape the ravages of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, he emigrated to the United States with very little money, but with a very clear idea of what he wanted to do. As a young man back home, he had developed his passion for aviation into a full-fledged industrial activity, producing the world’s first multi-engine airplanes, the S-21 and S-22, and inventing solutions which were the most technologically-advanced at that time. His aircraft had also earned him official recognition and a medal from the Russian Air Force during World War I.
Upon his arrival in the States, Sikorsky adapted to various odd jobs before finding a more stable situation as a schoolteacher and lecturer. By saving every penny he could, in 1923 he founded the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation in Long Island, New York with a start up capital of
Sikorsky set up his first workshop in the middle of an open field on a chicken farm owned by a friend who was a former lieutenant in the Russian Navy. His workforce consisted of family members and Russian immigrants, including some former Russian military officers. There wasn’t enough money to buy proper machinery and raw material, so the workers had to scavenge through junkyards to find parts, which then had to be cut, welded and hammered into shape by hand.
Undaunted by these difficulties, Igor Sikorsky designed and started building the S-29A, a twin-engine, closed-cabin airplane capable of carrying 14 passengers.
But the money was running out fast and by the late autumn of 1923 the situation appeared desperate. What few funds were still available were used mostly to buy food for the workers, who had gone several weeks without pay. Morale was at its lowest and it appeared that work on the S-29A would have to be abandoned, that is until one Sunday morning…
One Sunday morning in the late autumn of 1923, a large black automobile turned into the dirt road leading to the chicken farm. It stopped next to the aircraft under construction. Without saying a word to the amazed workers, the tall, elegant gentleman who stepped out of the car then walked up to the S-29A and inspected it for several minutes. The workers’ amazement and excitement grew as, one by one, they recognized the mysterious visitor as Sergei Rachmaninoff, the very successful and famous Russian composer and concert pianist. Like Sikorsky, Rachmaninoff had fled Russia at the end of the First World War and had immigrated to the States, where he commanded large fees for his performances.
Sergei knew about Sikorsky’s past achievements and had been impressed by Sikorsky’s determination to pursue his dreams. He had also been informed about the financial difficulties that threatened the survival of the fledging aircraft company. After exchanging a few words with Sikorsky, the Russian composer gave him a check for $5,000, a huge sum for those years, and said, “Pay me back whenever you can.” This unexpected loan allowed the completion of the S-29A, which was a great success and which gave Sikorsky his first profit in 1924.
Years later, Sikorsky’s son wrote, “My father felt very proud when in 1929 he sent Rachmaninoff a check for $5,000 plus interest.”
By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN & Sales Manager, Pometon Abrasives
Author: Giovanni Gregorat