Present at the Creation

 - January 23, 2008, 10:18 AM

In the late winter of 1923, these 12 men were most of the workforce of the fledgling Sikorsky Aircraft. When this vintage image was captured, the men were taking a break in their struggle to complete an early flying-boat design inside a decrepit shed on a Long Island, N.Y. chicken farm. Visionary Igor Sikorsky (fifth from right) was in those days a freshly arrived Russian émigré, driven to the U.S. when the Bolshevik uprising made Sikorsky’s pro-Czarist loyalties a dangerous label. Despite the fact that one of Sikorsky’s first designs was a helicopter that proved unfeasible, he and the company that bears his name made their first mark by designing and creating some of the largest and longest-legged flying boats the world has ever seen. One of them, the S-40, was picked by airline mogul Juan Trippe to serve as the first of the famed China Clippers at Pan Am. Only when success in the flying-boat business spelled Sikorsky’s fiscal survival did he return to seeking the solution to his first great mystery, the helicopter.

Just what airplane are Sikorsky and his skeleton crew building here? The new company’s very first, the S-29, an abortive attempt to interest the Army in a heavy bomber. The sole prototype was purposely crashed as the fiery climax to Howard Hughes’ World War I epic air combat classic, Hell’s Angels.