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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Russian teenager took off with his invention

Since then, 10 American presidents have used it

By Paul Niemann

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[November 13, 2008]  President Richard Nixon said these words about this week's inventor, Igor Sikorsky, back in 1972 ...

"Man's dream of flying is an unfinished saga, carrying us now toward even greater adventures in outer space. But wherever we may go, and whatever we achieve through our efforts to push back the horizon of our knowledge, Igor Sikorsky will remain a source of inspiration -- a true man of vision."  

Who was Igor Sikorsky and what did he invent?  

Sikorsky was a Russian immigrant born in Kiev in 1889. He invented something that most of us will never fly in, yet his company has been making the one that has transported every president of the United States since 1957.  

His full name was Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky, and he invented the modern single-rotor helicopter.

With a name like that, I wonder if his mom ever used his middle name when yelling at him, like: "Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky, you go to your room this minute. And don't try to make that rubber-band-that-spins-when-you-wind-it-up contraption start flying in the air again." Which is exactly what he did at age 12.  

By the time he was 19, he had figured out how to make a real helicopter with two propellers fly a few feet off the ground. This was way back in 1909, just six years after the brothers Wright had figured out how to get their airplane to fly. 


The president of the United States travels in one of the Sikorsky helicopters on flights that are less than 150 miles, and the helicopter is called Marine One whenever the president is aboard. Sikorsky helicopters have carried the past 10 U.S. presidents. If you're keeping score at home, that would be Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II.  

That's not the most interesting thing about this inventor, though. The most interesting thing pertains to some of the people who influenced him.  

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One was Jules Verne, who wrote the book "Around the World in 80 Days." The other was the person whose design helped provide the basis for Sikorsky's helicopter.

You see, Sikorsky wasn't the first person to design a helicopter. He based part of his design on the work of an Italian inventor who lived almost 450 years before! His name was Leonardo da Vinci.

Why didn't da Vinci bring the helicopter to life himself?  

Because engines hadn't been invented yet when da Vinci was alive. In addition to designing the original version of a helicopter, da Vinci drew designs of an airplane, a submarine, a bicycle and a parachute. He did not build working models of any of them, though.

Sikorsky's single-rotor design remains the most common helicopter design used today. He also worked on other flight-related inventions, including a "transoceanic flying boat."

He died in 1972 at the age of 83, and today his company, Sikorsky Aircraft, is the oldest aircraft manufacturer in the world.


Paul Niemann's column is syndicated to more than 70 newspapers. He is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2008

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