Read More: Sergei Sikorsky: Born to Aviation
February 28, 2019

With a background in aviation going back to his birth, Sergei Sikorsky’s career traces the development of helicopters and the global aviation industry, despite his almost being sidetracked into medicine.

Sergei, now 94, discussed his life and career in an interview with Martin J. Pociask, retired curator of Helicopter Foundation International. You can watch the entire interview online at rotor.org/trailblazers.

Family Footsteps

Sergei is the son of aviation and helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky, who designed the first viable helicopter in 1939, the Vought-Sikorsky VS-300. A talented aeronautical engineer, the Russian-born Igor also designed the world’s first successful four-engine airplane in 1913. Before the 1917 Russian Revolution, Igor had a company Sergei says “would today be the equivalent of combining maybe Boeing and Douglas.”

With Europe recovering from four years of war and Russia in turmoil, Igor fled to the United States in 1919, living “in a $12-a-month flophouse in Manhattan” and supporting himself by lecturing on mathematics and physics. But by 1923 he managed to form an aircraft company bearing his name.

Sergei was born in 1925 and, in his words, “fell in love with aviation at a very early age.” He started building model planes around age six, and he recounts an early memory of the rollout of the legendary Pan Am clipper. 

Sergei recalls flying in his father’s lap in the co-pilot seat of a Sikorsky S-38 Amphibian. Visits from some of the greats of early aviation were common in his childhood, including Charles Lindbergh (Sergei recalls playing with his children), Pan Am founder Juan Tripp, Pan Am’s first head of flight operations André Priester, aviation pioneer Roscoe Turner, World War I fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker, and Jimmy Doolittle, the American aviator who led the development of instrument flight.

Learning the Ropes

In 1909, recognizing the limitations of the technology at the time, Igor abandoned his research on helicopters, concentrating instead on fixed-wing aircraft. Fortunately, he later revisited his research in vertical flight. 
Sergei recalls one afternoon in 1938 “when my father returned home from a critical meeting with the board of directors of United Aircraft and told us that his helicopter project had been approved.”

Visiting the United Aircraft factory in the late 1930s, Sergei became intrigued “by a small little helicopter that was taking shape in the corner of the seaplane hangar.” Sergei worked with Igor, including making small balsa helicopter models and sketches of future helicopters conducting various missions, for his father to show to engineers.

Sergei handled a number of jobs as the pioneering Sikorsky VS-300 came into service around 1940, including greasing the main rotor and tail rotor fittings. Bearings in main rotor hubs would shoot grease out, which did not bode well for the parade of visitors to the factory.

As Sergei remembers, “When we didn’t like somebody, we would always say, ‘You don’t have to go back too far. You could stand up pretty close—very moderate rotor downwash.’ And sometimes that person believed it, stood up fairly close when the helicopters took off, and got himself a grease bath. It was not very polite, but at that time we weren’t very polite.”

The Sikorskys warned those they liked to stand back at least 50 feet, he says.

Sergei stresses that his father was adamant about not being named the inventor of the helicopter.

“Whenever he was told that he was the father of the helicopter, my father would insist, ‘No, the father of the helicopter is Professor Henrich Focke who built the very first practical machine capable of flying 250 miles, capable of climbing to 11,000 and 12,000 feet of altitude and endurances of 2½ and 3½ hours.’” Igor, he says, “would grudgingly admit to the fact that he solved the challenge over the single main lifting rotor and a small anti-torque rotor, which he made with the VS-300.”
 

Read More: Roy Simmons: A Life in Helicopters
November 13, 2018

With his humble beginnings in the small farming area of Parkrose, Oregon, Roy Simmons never dreamed that he would have a distinguished career in aviation.

A past chairman of Helicopter Association International (HAI) and past president of Columbia Helicopters, Simmons has received many accolades over the years, including HAI’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 1999. With more than 5,000 hours of total flight time between his military and civilian service, Simmons has held FAA commercial pilot, rotorcraft, single-engine land, instrument, and instructor ratings, in addition to type ratings in Boeing Vertol 107-II, Sikorsky S-61, and Sikorsky S-58 helicopters. 

Early Life

Simmons was born May 22, 1936, in Portland, Oregon. The country was still recovering from the Great Depression and times were tough. “My parents owned an acre of land, and I recall we always had a big garden,” says Simmons. “During World War II, my parents loaned out some of the land to local families to grow victory gardens. They saved a little money during the recovery and built a house.” 

Sadly, Simmons’s father passed away when he was only 11. His mother worked hard to support her son, working as a bookkeeper for several companies before becoming a registered nurse.

During his senior year of high school, his mother lost her job. Because Simmons had enough credits to graduate, he took a job in a lead fishing-sinker factory, attending school in the mornings and working in the afternoon and on Saturdays.

Simmons attended Portland State College from 1954 to 1956, majoring in business and technology with a minor in accounting. “While attending college, I worked part-time during the summer months for Warren Northwest Paving Company, driving pickup trucks and trailers,” he says.

Military Service

After college, Simmons’s attention turned to aviation. From 1957 to 1958, he attended naval flight school as a cadet in Pensacola, Florida, where he received fixed-wing and helicopter training. Simmons then served in the US Marine Corps from 1958 to 1963, leaving active duty with the rank of captain.

Simmons flew both helicopters and airplanes in various squadrons in the United States, overseas in Japan, and aboard carriers in the South Pacific. “My overseas tour of duty was spent in Okinawa,” Simmons says. “It was an interesting assignment, as I was assigned to a marine observation squadron, flying both helicopters (the HOK-1 [later designated as the OH-43D]) and fixed-wing (the Cessna OE-1 [later designated the O-1B]). We were the only marine aviation unit on the island supporting a marine division. Our mission was flying search and rescue with the helicopters and using the airplanes for flying aerial observers and forward air controllers.

“I also spent several months during my 15-month overseas tour of duty on an aircraft carrier. I attended Embarkation Officers School, where I learned how to load vehicles, supplies, and aircraft onto navy ships. I was in charge of several shipboard movements during my overseas assignment. In early 1960, I was reassigned to another marine observation squadron at Camp Pendleton, California, helping to train pilots for their upcoming tours of duty overseas.”

Simmons spent the last two years of his active duty at the Marine Corps Air Facility in Santa Ana, California, flying the Sikorsky HR2S-1 (later designated as the CH-347). “At the time, the HR2S was the largest helicopter in the free world,” says Simmons. “It had two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engines and could carry about 32 troops or several jeeps internally. It had clamshell doors in the nose with a hydraulic ramp for loading vehicles. It was a great instrument helicopter and very stable to fly under instrument conditions.

“However, I was always up on my emergency procedures, as most every flight was an emergency in the making. I spent several nights in the Okefenokee swamps of Florida; made an emergency landing in the desert near Tucson, Arizona; and made a single-engine night GCA [ground-controlled approach] into Fort Ord, California, with 28 troops in the belly. After those incidents, I decided I had all the fun I could handle and asked for release from active duty in 1963.” 

After leaving active duty, Simmons was a member of the US Marine Corps Reserve from 1963 to 1969, drilling in Seattle, Washington. After having attained the rank of major, he left the reserves when the demands of his civilian job became too pressing and included extensive travel time.