Igor Sikorsky teaching Charles Lindbergh to fly a helicopter

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In December of this year, our country will celebrate the 100th anniversary of controlled manned flight. I have been privileged to cross paths with several of the early pioneers that made their mark in our 100-year. Notably I have seen in person Charles Lindbergh, pilot of the first trans-Atlantic non-stop flight and Igor Sikorsky the helicopter inventor. Igor Sikorsky came to the Air Force Academy to lecture us cadets one evening in 1957, I believe it was. I remember him as a slight man with wispy white hair. He carried himself with the excellent posture of the Russian aristocrat that he truly was. Speaking with a strong accent it took a few minutes before we cadets could comprehend him completely but the story he had to tell held us spellbound. Igor was educated in his native Russia and had designed the largest four engine aircraft to fly before WWI. Not approving of the politics in his native country he immigrated to the United States in 1918.

Igor Sikorsky and Charles Lindbergh in a S-40, American Clipper.
Settling in Connecticut his family purchased a large estate and he set to work at his first love, aircraft design. He concentrated on building flying boats and was quite successful in that endeavor. The huge elegant flying boats that pioneered trans-ocean airline service were mostly his design and manufacture.

Igor told us that he’d always been intrigued with the concept of an aircraft with a rotary wing that would provide both lift and forward thrust, the very aircraft that we know today as the helicopter. Not only did he figure out how to successfully control such a craft he built the machine and taught himself to fly it. That night he showed us grainy black and white movies of his first successful helicopter in flight. He was of course the test pilot, perched out in the open dressed in coat and tie with a bowler hat on his head.

Sikorsky was an admirer of Charles Lindbergh and the two had become friends over the years. A few years after his first successful rotary wing flight, and after he had continually improved the machine, he invited Lindbergh to come fly it. Igor himself would be the flight instructor. Lindbergh kept a busy schedule so it was about a year before he could come to the Sikorsky factory.

Igor told of how he walked around his machine with Lindbergh and explained how each part worked and how the pilot controlled it in flight. Then student Lindbergh stepped into the cockpit and instructor Sikorsky mounted up behind him at the second set of controls. Igor demonstrated the takeoff and flew around to demonstrate how it was done. He returned to the starting point, came to a hover and then set it gently down on the ground. It was then Lindbergh’s turn. Igor told us that Lindbergh didn’t do very well; the machine simply wouldn’t behave as it had done for instructor Sikorsky. They practiced for a couple hours and it was obvious that Lindbergh was becoming more frustrated with each passing minute.

Finally the lesson came to a close and the two friends went off to an evening meal together. Usually the perfect dinner companion, Lindbergh was quite uncommunicative and excused himself early in the evening. He retired to the guest villa alone.

Igor told us that early the next morning, at the appointed time, Lindbergh showed up for his second lesson. While Sikorsky sat quietly in the rear cockpit, Lindbergh started the engine and did the requisite preflight checks. Then he advanced the throttle and pulled the machine into a perfect hover. After a few minutes of hover he translated to forward flight and made a circuit of the area. Then it was back to the point of departure where again he attained a hover and then set the machine down under perfect control.

Sikorsky was impressed with his student. Obviously during the night Lindbergh had taught himself how to fly that helicopter. In his mind he had dissected every control input and taught himself how it should be done. There is no doubt that Charles Lindbergh was a pilot that operated on an intellectual plane high above the rest of us mortals who can maybe learn to do the same thing with ten hours plus practice.

Several times, following a particularly frustrating lesson, I have related Sikorsky’s Lindbergh story to my own students. I tell them to go home and think about it. Inevitably the next lesson goes much better. Sometimes we just have to step away from a problem and let our unconscious mind sort things out for itself. The human mind is truly an awesome creation. Few of us can attain the insight of Lindbergh but each of us has a truly fantastic inner mind if we can just let it operate.

Both Igor Sikorsky and Charles Lindbergh have folded their wings and are now making their flights on a heavenly plain. Just think of the legacy that each left to mankind. The world is a better place because they lived. I feel privileged to have felt their touch.

Reprinted from the Southwest Nebraska News. By Dick Trail

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