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Aviation History: January '98 From The Editor

Originally published by Aviation History magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1998 
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Some are famous for their deeds. Others are known for their vision. Few are remembered for both. We all remember Charles A. Lindbergh for his deed of flying solo for the first time across the Atlantic Ocean. But few recall his practical and insightful influence that helped contribute to the switch from further development of the flying boat to an emphasis on the landplane for long-distance commercial flying.

Thanks to a chance meeting with the son of one of the major builders and innovators of aviation from the World War I era through the next war, I was provided with correspondence between Lindbergh and Igor I. Sikorsky on the subject of airplanes to come.

I met Igor I. Sikorsky, Jr.,–appropriately enough–at the opening of the American Helicopter Museum near Philadelphia. He shared with me a copy of correspondence his aviation pioneer father had conducted with Lindbergh in 1936.

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Sikorsky, in the Journal of Aeronautical Science, had forecast a future for large passenger aircraft of the amphibious type–an outgrowth of the seaplanes he already was producing with great success. The next model of his S-44 four-engine flying boat was progressing from a concept into the preliminary planning stages.

Sikorsky, Martin and Boeing flying boats were pioneering commercial air routes around the globe by that time. But hints were surfacing of a new age in air travel that did not include a dependence upon airplanes that landed on water. In the works was a "superplane" that was expected to fly more than 2,000 miles, above much of the weather, and span the oceans and continents from land airports.

Frank Whittle in England and Hans Pabst von Ohain in Germany were beginning serious experiments with jet engines. And England's Imperial Airways was prohibiting smoking in an airliner's toilet–talk about portents of things to come.

Lindbergh, respectful of Sikorsky as the great designer and airplane builder that he was, diplomatically disagreed about the flying boat as the future of commercial passenger aviation, and wrote his views to Sikorsky. Among these were: "…I am extremely interested in the specification for your latest design of trans-oceanic Clipper and I believe that this size of plane is the next step in developing ocean air lines. However, I think that the landplane will probably replace the flying boat in the more distant future….I think it is conservative to say that we must be able to carry trans-oceanic passengers at altitudes which are above the top of storms. The flying boat hull seems to be again at the inherent disadvantage if an internal pressure must be carried."

Sikorsky, great yet humble man that he was, listened to this young aviator who had absorbed much during his travels and in his contacts with the aviation industry. He not only acknowledged Lindbergh's advice but also replied, "Your letter has planted new ideas in the minds of our engineering group, and as a result of it, we already have a few sketches and some preliminary figures for a large landplane…."

Lindbergh's prophecy would prove correct, but Sikorsky was not to be the medium through which it became reality. Several airlines already had provided seed money to aircraft maker Donald Douglas for a superplane that would carry more passengers farther, faster and higher than existing airliners–with retractable tricycle landing gear instead of a boat hull. The four-engine DC-4 would be the result, along with others of the new breed of land-based airliners.

Although he agreed with the prognostications of the solo conqueror of the Atlantic, Sikorsky did not jump on the large landplane bandwagon. Instead, he turned his design talent and energies to a project he had tried without success in Russia many years before, prior to emigrating to America.

Vertical lift had been a pet project, but the power plants available in 1909 had not been enough to raise Sikorsky's two primitive helicopters from the ground. In his words, "Both were typical helicopters. They made much noise, raised clouds of dust, but they had one unfortunate drawback–they did not fly." By the eve of the 1940s, however, aircraft engines were capable of producing enough power to potentially lift a vehicle straight up. Sikorsky returned to the challenge of vertical flight. He succeeded in grand style. The VS 300 flew successfully in 1938, and Sikorsky has taken his place in history as not only the builder of great landplanes and seaplanes but also the father of the helicopter.

And, as Lindbergh had prophesied, the landplane replaced the flying boat as the primary carrier of the world's commercial air passengers. The practical jet engine begun by Whittle and von Ohain powers them–and smoking still is not permitted in the toilets.

Such is the stuff of what we like to call aviation history.

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