Virtually everyone knows the Wright brothers constructed the first successful airplane, but did you know the first working helicopter was created by Igor Sikorsky? Its initial flight occurred on September 14, 1939.
Sikorsky was born in 1889 in Kiev (part of Russia at the time but currently in Ukraine). He died on October 26, 1972. Although he contributed several innovations to the nascent aircraft industry, including multiengine, amphibious, and passenger aircraft, he is perhaps most remembered for creating the world's first working helicopter.
Helicopters posed special design challenges. The force required to move something into the air against gravity is called lift. In airplanes, lift is created by the wings, which are curved in a manner that creates a difference in air pressure above and below the wings. With less pressure above, the wing is pulled upward. The effect is called the Bernoulli Principle. In fixed-wing aircraft, this difference in air pressure is created by moving the wing through the air at a sufficient speed. In other words, in order to remain aloft, airplanes have to fly fast.
A helicopter works on the same principle but through a different mechanism. Instead of moving a wing through the air, a helicopter spins a rotor with blades. A rotor is like a propeller, but it is horizontal rather than vertical. The spinning of rotor blades, however, also creates torque that can make the helicopter spin in the opposite direction. To solve this problem, on helicopters with one primary rotor, a small, second rotating blade in the tail works against the torque to hold the helicopter straight. Because the helicopter's rotor blades move through the air to create lift (rather than moving the craft itself), a helicopter can lift off and land vertically, fly more slowly than an airplane, and hover. Helicopters can even fly backwards. These versatile characteristics make helicopters ideal for many specialized tasks, including firefighting, law enforcement, and search and rescue operations.
Sikorsky, a deeply religious man, found enormous gratification in the humanitarian value of the helicopters he introduced to the world. He said, "If a man is in need of rescue, an airplane can come in and throw flowers on him, and that's just about all. But a direct lift aircraft could come in and save his life." In 1969, Sikorski estimated that more than 50,000 lives had been saved by helicopter rescue missions. The editors of the Igor I. Sikorsky Historical Archives estimated that, by 2012, the number was close to two million.
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Observations: A Pier Press® Newsletter. Click here to access the archived version and learn more about helicopters. And, if you're not already a subscriber, click here to sign up. It's free.