Sikorsky celebrates 100 years
Vice President of the Sikorsky Archives John Bulakowski was not in the room two days before Christmas in 1976 when the call came into the Stratford company from the U.S. Army about the choice of the Black Hawk as its next all-purpose helicopter over the Bell Huey, which had been the Army's workhorse during the Vietnam conflict.
But he was just down the hall, and word got out pretty quickly about the outcome of the call — including a mostly forgotten moment in Sikorsky lore when a company executive inadvertently hung up on Army brass and had to be quickly patched back through to get the good news.
The company had reached its 50th anniversary in 1973, with founder Igor Sikorsky having died only months before at age 83. But without the Black Hawk and its huge production run through to the present, Sikorsky veterans are skeptical the company would have survived many more years beyond 1973 with no other major military program in the offing at the time, let alone make it to its March 5, 2023, centennial.
“We were at a low-ebb point as a company,” said Dan Libertino, a Sikorsky retiree who is now president of the Igor I. Sikorsky Historical Archives. “We really needed it.”
Today, Sikorsky faces a new existential question on the heels of the Army's rejection of its Defiant X helicopter, opting instead for a Bell tilt-rotor aircraft to take over many of the utility missions performed by the Black Hawk. Sikorsky, parent Lockheed Martin and partner Boeing are protesting the award, with a decision expected next month.
If unsuccessful, Sikorsky will get one more big chance at remaining a key cog in the Army helicopter fleet into the next century: competing with Bell and parent Textron to provide a new armed-scout helicopter for the Pentagon, which has pushed back the purchase over the past few decades.
Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin have not stated how many jobs could be at stake — the manufacturer had about 8,000 workers in Connecticut entering this year — but the stakes are the highest for Sikorsky since that 1976 phone call.
Igor Sikorsky knew a thing or two about personal and financial peril in escaping czarist Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution. He launched his original aircraft company on Long Island, N.Y., scraping together funds from fellow Russian immigrants and salvaging scrap metal from a local junkyard to fashion tools and parts.
But a storied history would only be token consolation for a Connecticut workforce facing any prospect of the Army hanging up on Sikorsky for good by choosing Bell for the utility and armed scout aircraft it wants. Bulakowski, who spent most of his managerial career at Sikorsky on the Black Hawk program, notes the track record the helicopter embodies in the combined work of thousands of system designers and factory floor workers who have built and modernized the helicopters over the years.
“The Black Hawk was introduced 50 years ago,” Bulakowski said. “It's still flying.”
‘What the customer wanted’
Sikorsky founded the Sikorsky Aerospace Engineering Co. on March 5, 1923, on Long Island. With support from a Massachusetts businessman, he brought his fledgling company to Connecticut in 1929 after learning of a parcel near the mouth of the Housatonic River in Stratford with ample acreage, deep water and easy access to Long Island Sound for the seaplanes he planned to build. The following year, the company was sold to United Aircraft, the predecessor to United Technologies, which sold Sikorsky Aircraft in 2015 to Lockheed Martin.
If Igor Sikorsky the man defined the first 50 years of his namesake company, it is the Black Hawk machine that has come to symbolize the company since, becoming synonymous with the Afghanistan war that was the most protracted in U.S. history.
Bulakowski sees the Black Hawk as an extension of Igor Sikorsky's
obsession with aeronautical engineering as a means to fulfilling specific requirements for the larger mission. He recollected how Bell fell by the wayside in the early 1970s in the competition for a new helicopter to replace its UH-1 Iroquois, the formal designation for the Huey.
“We have pictures of what their mock-up looked like for the competition, and it really looked like a warmed-over UH-1,” Bulakowski said. “They lost sight of what the customer wanted.”
The Black Hawk went on to beat out a Boeing entry as well across any number of factors, from the time needed to load helicopters onto Air Force cargo planes for long-distance transport to its ability to withstand crashes with a better chance of crews walking away intact from any wreckage.
With Defiant X, Sikorsky executives maintain they have once again met all the Army's requirements for the eventual Black Hawk replacement under the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft competition and exceeded requirements across a multitude of criteria.
But Defiant X lacks the range and speed of Bell's Valor 280 tiltrotor aircraft, which Bell and then-partner Boeing were able to deliver in 1988 to military specifications with the V-22 Osprey after decades of experimentation by Bell on tilt-rotor prototypes.
Fielded today by the U.S. Marine Corps, the Osprey's development was prompted by the failed attempt in 1980 to rescue U.S. embassy staff held hostage in Tehran, with Sikorsky-built Sea Stallion helicopters inadequate to the demands of the long-distance mission and harsh desert conditions encountered by the special forces units.
Long-distance operations remain a looming consideration for the Army in contemplating any future war theaters like the Pacific Rim, Asia or eastern Europe, where aircraft may need to fly vast distances into hostile territory to land or resupply soldiers.
Ironically, it was Igor Sikorsky who put more of the globe within reach in the 1920s as he began building the “flying boats” in Connecticut that he would enlarge over time to make transoceanic airline service possible before land-based airports were constructed in most parts of the world.
Some consider Sikorsky at the head of the next tier of aviation pioneers after the Wright Brothers, given three distinct periods of his career. As a young man in czarist Russia, Sikorsky built and
flew the world's first multi-engine airplane after traveling to France and Germany in his late teens for a crash course in aviation during the industry's fledgling stages.
In September 1926, Sikorsky was months ahead of Charles Lindbergh and Spirit of St. Louis co-designer Donald A. Hall in an attempt to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first nonstop transatlantic flight. But overloaded with fuel, the Sikorsky biplane's undercarriage came apart as it labored down the runway, with the airplane careening off an embankment and exploding into flames.
Sikorsky started anew designing pontoon planes that could take off and land in water. After arriving in Connecticut in 1929, he designed a succession of planes that would set records for speed, altitude and endurance, with Lindbergh an active consultant in some of the designs.
But it was developing the first practical helicopter that lifted Sikorsky into the pantheon of aviation greats. The possibilities for vertical lift had transfixed him since his boyhood in Kyiv when he built toy models and attempted a real flying machine before giving up and moving onto airplanes. Even as he was designing his early seaplanes, Sikorsky was still thinking about those possibilities. In his autobiography “The Story of the Winged-S,” he wrote that he began working earnestly on a helicopter design as early as 1929 and applied for a patent in 1931.
"This whole flying boat thing
was just something to do until he could get back to the real problem," Sikorsky's grandson Igor Sikorsky III told Hearst Connecticut Media.
Sikorsky himself regarded a 1937 working prototype as the world's first practical helicopter, designed by Henry Focke and Gerd Achgelis with rotor sets mounted on outriggers extending to either side of the helicopter. But as was the case for the Wright Brothers, getting aloft was only the first problem early helicopter innovators encountered. Equally important was control of the aircraft.
Wing warping was the breakthrough that allowed Orville and Wilbur Wright to produce swooping aerial turns that rival airplane pioneers could not match. Sikorsky figured out the effective use of a boom-mounted rear rotor to counter the torque created by the rotation of the main rotor blades, preventing the helicopter from spinning out of control and allowing for similar nimbleness while hovering.
“Harry Reasoner once said a helicopter, by nature, wants to rip itself apart, and that's because it's just all opposing forces,” Bulakowski said. “You've got the centrifugal forces of the main rotor blades . ... The aircraft needs to have a counter-force to it, or else it will start rotating, so you need a tail rotor.”
Igor Sikorsky's pioneering breakthroughs made it an easy enough call for President Harry Truman in December 1951 as to which representative of the helicopter industry he might hand
the highest prize in aviation that year. At a White House ceremony, however, Truman also acknowledged the impact of Bell and its early bubble canopy helicopter, which became an enduring image of the Korean War thanks to its starring role in the TV series M*A*S*H.
“In 1942 or 1943, I held a hearing with a certain Senate committee with which I was connected, and Dr. Sikorsky was there and told me all about helicopters and what they could do,” Truman said during the 1951 White House ceremony. “It is one of the great contributions to the air development of this country.”
Sikorsky could already share credit for a prior Collier Trophy for aviation achievement after Pan American Airlines was recognized for opening up transoceanic service with the “Pan Am Clippers” designed by Sikorsky, Boeing and the Glenn L. Martin Co., whose legacy traces through Lockheed Martin today.
The company bearing the Sikorsky name would go on to win the prize twice more, most recently in 2010 after proving the capabilities of the X2 prototype that unlocked vastly improved maneuverability and speed compared to the Black Hawk and other helicopters through stacked sets of rigid rotor blades spinning in opposite directions, which eliminate the need for the tail rotor.