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FreightWaves Classics: Sikorsky S-55 takes flight

Igor Sikorsky in an early model of his helicopter. (Photo:

On this date in 1949, the multi-purpose Sikorsky S-55 helicopter made its first flight above Bloomfield, Connecticut. The S-55 helicopter was built by Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, which had been founded by aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky in 1923. The company was originally known as Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation. (Sikorsky Aircraft has been part of Lockheed Martin Corporation since 2015.) One of Sikorsky’s nephews was Dimitry D. “Jimmy” Viner; he was the chief pilot for Sikorsky Aircraft, and was at the controls of the S-55 during its maiden flight.

An engineering illustration of the S-55. (Image: Sikorsky Archives)
An engineering illustration of the S-55. (Image: Sikorsky Archives)

Sikorsky’s helicopter quickly attained international acclaim; orders for the aircraft were placed from around the world. In particular, the various branches of the U.S. military recognized the S-55’s abilities to handle a wide range of tasks. Unsurprisingly, many of these helicopters were purchased and became part of the aircraft fleets of each branch of the U.S. military. 

During the Korean War the S-55 played a crucial role in the conflict. The helicopter’s centrally located cargo compartment was capable of carrying up to 12 passengers and more than 2,600 pounds of supplies. Some of the helicopters were modified so that they could serve as air ambulances; as many as eight stretchers for wounded servicemen could be carried at one time. During the Korean War the S-55 was an airborne transportation platform in which on-board medical personnel could actively care for the wounded while on the way from battlefields to mobile army surgical hospital units (MASH) and other healthcare facilities.

Troops about to board helicopters to be transported to the front lines during the Korean War, at the 6th Transportation Helicopter, Eighth Army. (Photo: Sikorsky Archives)
Troops about to board helicopters to be transported to the front lines during the Korean War, at the 6th Transportation Helicopter, Eighth Army. (Photo: Sikorsky Archives)

In addition, the S-55 was used to rescue U.S. and United Nations aircrews who either crashed or parachuted behind enemy lines. The helicopters were also used to transport troops and supplies to combat areas, conduct reconnaissance missions and retrieve damaged vehicles. 

The S-55 achieved fame for other reasons. In 1952 two of the helicopters completed the first-ever transoceanic crossing by helicopters when they flew from Massachusetts to Scotland. Also in 1952 the S-55 became the first rotary-wing aircraft used for commercial airline links in Europe.

Igor Sikorsky

Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky achieved distinction in three separate careers in aviation. He built the world’s first multi-engine airplane in Russia in 1913 at the age of 24 (he was only 14 when the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina); he launched a second career in the United States and became famous for his Flying Clippers; lastly, he conceived and developed the world’s first practical helicopter. One of Sikorsky’s biographers summarized his career in this way: “Igor Sikorsky had three careers in aviation: constructing and flying fixed-wing aircraft in Russia; constructing fixed-wing aircraft, including seaplanes in America; and helicopters, actually his first love.” 

Igor Sikorsky. (Image: American Society of Mechanical Engineers)
Igor Sikorsky. (Image: American Society of Mechanical Engineers)

Sikorsky’s career in Russia

Born in Russia, Igor Sikorsky was a scientist, engineer, pilot and entrepreneur who made fixed and rotary wing aircraft prior to the Russian Revolution. 

In 1910, Sikorsky made his first solo flight in an aircraft that he designed and built. He then built the first four-engine airplane in 1913. It was named “The Grand,” and it had an “enclosed cabin, a washroom, upholstered chairs and an exterior balcony for passengers.” Sikorsky then built an even bigger aircraft; its military version was a highly successful World War I bomber.

Sikorsky in Russia in 1914. (Photo: Karl Bulla/Wikipedia)
Sikorsky in Russia in 1914. (Photo: Karl Bulla/Wikipedia)

The 1920s-1930s

Russia was in chaos because of the Russian Revolution. Sikorsky left and emigrated to the United States, arriving in New York on March 30, 1919. 

He sought to re-enter the aviation industry, but was unable to do so. Surplus aircraft and engines that had been built for World War I were very low-priced, and many at that time thought there was no market for civilian aviation. Needing to support himself, he began teaching fellow Russian immigrants mathematics, as well as astronomy and aviation. He then began to lecture about aviation; this led to interaction with fellow aviation enthusiasts. Many recommended he start his own company. The Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation was launched on March 5, 1923 and was based on a fellow immigrant’s farm near Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York. 

The S-29-A. (Photo: Sikorsky Archives)
The S-29-A. (Photo: Sikorsky Archives)

The first aircraft Sikorsky built in the U.S. was the S-29-A (Sikorsky type 29, America), a successful twin-engine, all-metal transport. 

Several other successful aircraft followed, including the S-38 amphibian. Pan American Airways bought S-38’s, which became known as the famous Pan Am Clippers. The airline used the aircraft to begin service to Central and South America. 

The Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation became a United Aircraft Corporation division in 1929. This led to a series of historic flying boats. “The first 40-passenger Flying Clippers were built in 1931, followed by the first transoceanic flying boat, the S-42, which pioneered commercial air transportation across the Pacific and Atlantic.” The S-44 was the last Sikorsky flying boat, which held the Blue Ribbon for the fastest trans-Atlantic passage for years. 

The first commercial flight of Pan American Airway's American Clipper in Miami on December 1, 1930. (Photo:
The first commercial flight of Pan American Airway’s American Clipper in Miami on December 1, 1930. (Photo:

In 1938, Sikorsky turned his attention to vertical lift aircraft. He had built his first helicopters in Russia more than 20 years earlier. While his first American helicopter was built in 1939, he had designed parts of it as early as 1929. Sikorsky applied for a helicopter patent in 1931 that had most of the VS-300’s features, including one main lifting screw and a small auxiliary rotor at the rear of the fuselage to counteract torque. 

The VS-300 was built in 1939 at the Vought-Sikorsky facility in Stratford, Connecticut. It rose a few feet off the ground on September 14, 1939. It was powered by a “four-cylinder, 75-horsepower, air-cooled engine; it had a three-bladed main rotor, 28 feet in diameter, and a welded steel frame, a power transmission combination of v-belts and bevel gears, a two-wheeled landing gear, and a completely open pilot’s seat.” 

On May 6, 1941 the VS-300 established a world endurance record; it stayed aloft for 92 minutes. This flight established the fundamentals of a successful helicopter. Sikorsky then experimented with 19 different configurations before he finalized the VS-300 design. 

U.S. military contracts came next; this led to large-scale manufacturing of the world’s first production helicopter in 1943. The helicopter was not used during World War II, but as noted above, it was used widely during the Korean War.

Sikorsky at the controls of a VS-300. (Photo: Bridgeport Public Library)
Sikorsky at the controls of a VS-300. (Photo: Bridgeport Public Library)

“Freeing aviation from airports”

Sikorsky’s vision was that the helicopter was a “vehicle that freed aviation from dependence on airports.” This had been dreamed about and discussed by engineers for years, but Sikorsky made the idea a reality. 

Over time, the helicopter established its versatility in peace and war. Sikorsky, though, stated that his greatest satisfaction was that “helicopters were responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives as rescue aircraft.” In 1967, he said that pilots of rescue helicopters had contributed “one of the most glorious pages in the history of human flight. It is to these gallant airmen that I address my thankfulness, respect and admiration.” 

Sikorsky on the cover of TIME magazine in 1953. 
(Image: From the author's collection)
Sikorsky on the cover of TIME magazine in 1953.
(Image: From the author’s collection)

Honors and awards

The honors and awards bestowed on Sikorsky fill nine pages! They include the National Medal of Science, the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy, the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Thomas D. White National Defense Award, and the Royal Aeronautical Society of England’s Silver Medal. He is enshrined at both the International Aerospace and the Aviation Halls of Fame.

Thomas K. Finletter, the Secretary of the Air Force, presented Sikorsky with the National Defense Transportation Award in 1952. At the time, Finletter said, “He is a milestone in the history of aviation, an equal giant and pioneer. Look upon him well and remember him.” 

Sikorsky was named Man of the Year by the Air Force Association in 1966.  President Lyndon B. Johnson congratulated Sikorsky, saying, “Your skill and perseverance have broadened the horizons of man’s progress.”

Sikorsky was described and praised in the following quote from his friend Anne Morrow Lindbergh: “The thing that’s remarkable about Igor is the great precision in his thought and speech, combined with an extraordinary soaring beyond facts. He can soar out with the mystics and come right back to the practical, to daily life and people. He never excludes people. Sometimes the religious-minded exclude people or force their beliefs on others. Igor never does.”

Sikorsky retired in 1957 when he was 68. However, he continued to work as a Sikorsky engineering consultant; he was in the office the day before he died at the age of 83 on October 26, 1972. Igor I. Sikorsky was truly a legendary aviation pioneer.

Igor Sikorsky. (Photo: National Science Foundation)
Igor Sikorsky. (Photo: National Science Foundation)

Author’s note: Much of the information and photos for this article came from the Sikorsky Archives, which are now part of the Lockheed-Martin Corporation. FreightWaves thanks Lockheed-Martin for sharing the Archives with the public.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.