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.
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.
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!