23 Aug 2014
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A Glance into the History of Helicopters

Who took to the skies first, Igor Sikorsky, founder the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Company, or Gustave Whitehead, a German American?

A Glance into the History of Helicopters

Jules Verne flying machine fuels boyhood fantasy

After studying at the Naval War College in St. Petersburg, Russia Igor Sikorsky decided blue skies, not blue waters were for him.

And so the young man, born in 1889, went to work as chief engineer for a Russian aircraft firm where he built the first of four-motor planes used as bombers against the Germans during WWI.

Soon after arriving to the US he founded the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Company. The plant was first located in Long Island.  He moved his plant to Stratford in 1928 and in 1929 it became a subsidiary of United Aircraft.

Sikorsky was a close friend of Charles A. Lindbergh. His plant helped build the ‘clipper ships’ used by the now defunct Pan American Airways. 

But the Russian immigrant had a fondness for flying machines a la Jules Verne. And so in 1939 Sikorsky flew the Vought-Sikorsky 300. The craft had a 75-horsepower engine linked to a three-blade rotor.

So though no one person can be credited with inventing the helicopter – after all Leonardo Da Vinci had the “flying screw” –

Sikorsky’s place in American aviation is irrefutable: most helicopters still use the rotor configuration he pioneered.

Did he or didn’t he?

It is said by some that Gustave Whitehead, a German American, took to the skies in 1901, two years before brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Whitehead lived in Bridgeport after immigrating to the United States from Leutershausen, Germany. A mechanic by trade, he considered himself an aviator by occupation. There’s no doubt that Whitehead built a monoplane, but there are questions as to whether he truly flew first.

Supporters, like Bridgeport Discovery Museum’s Executive Director Jeff Bishop and Andy Kosch of Bridgeport abound. There are also several affidavits from Bridgeport residents testifying they saw Whitehead fly at Bridgeport’s Seaside Park 110 years ago.

For anyone who has ever visited the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Air & Space is likely familiar with the Wright’s “Flyer” airplane. It seems suspended in mid-flight high above visitors’ heads.

According to several aviation historians the plane is there only at the pleasure of the Wright estate, which inked a contract with the Smithsonian nearly a century ago. The contract allegedly says the plane would go back to the estate should the museum ever suggest an earlier plane "capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight."

And while the museum doesn’t acknowledge anyone flying before the Wright Brothers it does acknowledge Whitehead to a degree.  Inside the hall of early aviation pioneers a plaque hangs on the wall listing some of Whitehead’s accomplishments and contributions to manned flight.

But some think Whitehead did more than just contribute. A recent event at the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport paid tribute to Whitehead.

Tell us what other Connecticut aviation stories inspire you?

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