Igor Sikorsky is remembered as an aircraft designer well ahead of his time. But at least once in his long career, he was unfashionably late.
This spacious twin-engine biplane was used for charter flights and then starred as the German Gotha bomber in Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels. The S-29A was destroyed during the filming, with one casualty.
But the future film star (or rather a death angel) was still alive and kick... eh, flying when Sikorsky started to build his next big bird. The S-35 (above) was designed as a twin-engined transport with a range of about 1600km. In the spring of 1926 Capt. Rene Fonck, a French First World War fighter ace, persuaded Sikorsky to redesign it in an attempt to win the $25,000 Orteig prize for the first non-stop New York-Paris flight. It became a very different aircraft, with three engines and vastly increased fuel load.
The S-35 received French built, British designed Gnome-Rhone Jupiter engines of 420hp each. They were extremely clean, with minimum bracing. It had a wing span of 101 ft and a slender fuselage with an 18 ft undercarriage. Top speed was 159 mph; cruise 129 mph.
Note the tails; one has the French flag and the center one has the American flag. The first test flight, by Fonck and Igor Sikorsky, was made on 23 August 1926. Later, pilot Frank LaVista of the Department of Commerce reported that the aircraft handled very well, could climb on two engines, and lost only 15m of height while flying at 132km/h for 35 seconds on one engine - literally, hovered like a dragonfly.
Jettisonable auxiliary landing gear was fitted to the S-35 for take-off on its transatlantic attempt, at an overload weight of 8400kg, on 21 September. Fonck insisted on having a radio operator, Charles Clavier, and veteran Sikorsky mechanic Jacob Islamoff, in addition to his co-pilot Lt Lawrence Curtin of the US Navy.
Watched by a huge crowd, part of the auxiliary landing gear broke away as the aircraft gathered speed. Bicycle wheels were used instead of the original skid to aid in the takeoff. When one of these collapsed pieces broke off smashing the rudders, auxiliary wheels placed outboard of the main gear were supposed to aid in holding up the heavily overloaded plane. The big Sikorski failed to get airborne and over-running the end of the field plummeted down a slope, crashing and catching fire.
Fonck and Curtin managed to escape the flames, but the radio operator Charles Clavier and the flight mechanic Jacob Islamoff both died. The S-35, which had cost $100,000 to build, was not insured.
After the crash of the S-35, Sikorsky built the S-37 (above), with two engines instead of three. This plane was to replace the S-35 for another try at a NY to Paris attempt. It was too late, as Charles Lindbergh had landed in Paris. This was a sad story but it showed the ability of Igor Sikorsky!
Watch the S-35: