Two Pioneers of Aviation and the accidents of history

Powered flight has transformed our lives during the last century.  Like many technological breakthroughs, the history of flight is usually written in terms of great men, the heroes of invention like Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were the first men to build and fly an aeroplane successfully at Kitty Hawk.  But heroic individuals explain only so much.  Context, circumstances, contingency, all play a role as well.

Which brings me to the story of Igor and Vladimir, and the curious connection between my suburb of Sandgate, on the shores of Moreton Bay, and the helicopter.

Around the early years of the 20th century, many people were experimenting with the idea of a heavier-than-air flying machine. In France and Germany, England and America, amateur aviators tinkered with kites, gliders and balloons. Even in Australia, on the remote edge of the British Empire, Lawrence Hargrave played a part with his experiments with box kites.

Russia had its enthusiasts too.  In Kiev, then a part of the greater Russian Empire, two friends, Igor and Vladimir, were fascinated by the possibilities of flight. Igor was particularly interested in the idea of using rotary motion to lift.  He was fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci’s designs, and in 1901, when he was only 12, he built a machine using wood and rubber bands that could rise into the air like a helicopter.

Leonardo da Vinci helicopter

Vladimir shared his friend’s passion, but when he heard the news of the Wright brothers’ flight, like everyone else, he turned his attention to fixed wing planes.  Igor went to Paris to study engineering, while Vladimir stayed home.  His wife, Lidia, was also a flight enthusiast, and the two of them flew around the country together, giving demonstration flights to raise money for their experiments.

When war broke out with Germany in 1914, both Igor and Vladimir joined the army. They had started a workshop near Riga just before the war. Russia, like all the other combatant nations, was keen to develop aircraft for the war effort, and now they could put their experimental planes into development. Production expanded with government orders, and by 1916 they were employing over 400 people in their factory.   Hidden well away from the horrors of the German front, the two men were safe from the dangers of war.  Instead it was Lidia who died, in a plane accident in 1916.

Then the Russian Revolution began in late 1917.  In the chaos and civil war that followed, Igor and Vladimir both became refugees.  Like all refugees in such a situation, they took whatever way out they could find, so they went in different directions, one  to America, the other to Australia.

For the next twenty years, across the thousands of miles that divided them, Igor and Vladimir kept up their friendship, and kept up their mutual interest in building the perfect flying machine.  Letters in Russian passed back and forth between them across the Pacific, in which they discussed their experiments, their engineering efforts, their prototypes, and occasionally their private lives.

In Australia, Vladimir Sluserenko finally settled in Sandgate, the bayside suburb of Brisbane where I live.  Brisbane had a surprisingly large Russian emigre population, because it was a destination for Russians who fled eastwards on the Trans-Siberian railway to the port of Harbin.  From there, many made their way south and ended up in Queensland. (Russians who came out via the western route always said you can distinguish the Harbin Russians because they put soy sauce on their pelmeni.)

Vladimer married again, raised a family, joined the congregation of Brisbane’s Russian Orthodox Church, and put his engineering skills to work as the local mechanic, servicing cars, bikes and machinery.  He became a part of the local community, a quiet man known locally as ‘Sluzer’, part of the plodding life of Sandgate between the wars.  But he kept up his interest in flying and in planes.  In 1932 he built a plane, a kit model known as a Heath Parasol fixed wing monoplane, which he called ‘Miss Sandgate’.  She was restored in 1995.

Sikorsky S-21 Russky Vityaz (Russian Knight) o...

Sikorsky S-21 Russky Vityaz (Russian Knight) or Le Grand (The Great) – first four engined aircraft in the world built by Igor Sikorsky in 1913

In America, Igor Sikorsky also found work where he could use his engineering talent.  He worked for the American army, and taught mathematics to fellow Russian immigrants.  Still fascinated by helicopters, in 1923 he founded the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation.  Today the American army alone flies more than 2000 Black Hawk helicopters, and the Sikorsky company is the largest helicopter company in the world.

What makes the lives of these two friends so different?  If Igor had ended up in Sandgate, would the Sikorsky helicopter be made here?  If Vladimir had gone to America, would he have founded Sluserenko Aero Engineering Corporation, the largest fixed wing aeroplane company in the world?  Were they both the agents of their different fates?  Or were their fates determined by the different conditions they found when both of them were washed up on foreign shores by the turbulence of war and revolution?  Historians talk about structure and agency, but that just gives a name to an underlying puzzle to which I have no clear answer.  Sometimes you just have to be the right man, at the right time, in the right place.  Otherwise you end up as a perfectly happy, but unknown, mechanic in Sandgate.

Material relating to Sluserenko is hard to come by, but there are files about him in the Sandgate Historical Museum.
There’s plenty about Sikorsky, including a detailed interactive timeline on the Sikorsky website.

Postscript: This is an updated and hopefully improved version of one of my earliest posts, which has the distinction of getting the fewest hits of anything I’ve written, so I decided to illustrate it and give it another outing.  As it happens, the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance has just opened a new exhibition on Australian aviators during World War II – Bomber Command: Australian airmen over Europe 1939-45 – so that will have to be my excuse!

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13 responses to “Two Pioneers of Aviation and the accidents of history

  1. Ross Cameron

    Thanks for the extra information on ‘Bill’ Slusar, Marion. Odd that he only constructed one plane here after being involved in the construction of so many in Russia (which is still flying at Aero shows, BTW).
    My list shows:
    In 1913, Slusarenko and Zvereva obtained a contract with Military Department, organized a repair workshop and pilot school near Riga. They started with assembly of 2 Farman-XVI (80hp Gnome engine), which were finished in October, 1913. A second order for eight aircraft of the same type, was accomplished by summer, 1914. Productivity was one-two aircraft per month.

    After the outbreak of WWI, Slusarenko moved to Petrograd, and his enterprise was now named a ‘factory’. In following two years, the following aircraft were accepted by the Military Department:
    • 15 ‘Farman-XXII’;
    • 25 ‘Morane-Parasol’;
    • 8 Farman-IV;
    • (few) ‘Morane-G’;

    In 1916 factory expanded substantially, about 460 employees were working there. In summer 1917 , the following aircraft were on the assembly lines:
    • 20 Lebed-XII;
    • 45 ‘Morane-G’ 16m (160 ordered);
    • 28 ‘Morane-G’ 14m;
    • 20 Farman-IV;
    • 4 Farman-XVI;

    Almost all those aircraft were finished and entered service. But in the second half of 1917, the factory started to suffer from supply and manpower shortages (one revolution had just passed, another was just around the corner). From December, 1917 production started to fall, and in late 1918 factory was finally closed.

    In addition to assembly of Farmans and Moranes, a few experimental aircraft of original design were built. Some were initiated and designed by G.P.Adler.

  2. Ross Cameron

    On an aviation note, I heard a rumour that Charles Kingsford-Smith married a Miss Smith from Sandgate. Any thoughts?

    • Hi Ross. According to Wikipedia:
      ‘Kingsford Smith was twice married, first to Thelma Eileen Corboy (1901–1990) on 6 June 1923 at the Marble Bar Registrar’s Office in Western Australia. They divorced in 1928. His second marriage was to Mary Powell (1910–1997) on 10 December 1930 at Scots’ Church, Melbourne.’ The Australian Dictionary of Biography only mentions his second wife by name, but otherwise says much the same.
      So it sounds like neither was a Miss Smith, and neither marriage took place in Brisbane. But I’m a bit puzzled by Marble Bar – whoever gets married there, and at a registry office too? But it’s a long way from Sandgate.

  3. Hi Marion,
    Thanks for the story on Slusarenko. I actually have the Heath Parasol “Miss Sandgate” built by him and fly it occasionally still. His is a wonderful story. See my version on the capricornplanespotting website – http://www.capricornplanespotting.com – under CQ aircraft tab. I also have started making a video clip on “Miss Sandgate” to display on ABC Open, watch out for it in 2014.

    Happy Landings,

    Len Neale

  4. Dear Len and all that knew Bill and his wife Claudia,
    Local Russian historians are putting some material togeter on Bill’s life here etc and right now are diesperately looking for a photo of his wife Claudia. Anyone, by chance, have one?
    Please reply with a scanned copy (if there is one or two) to:
    alexey.ivacheff@gmail.com
    Many thanks in advance
    Alexey

  5. A very nice piece, especially lovely for its musing over the intersection of personality and circumstance.

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