Long before Igor Sikorsky emigrated to the US and started building helicopters, he was a pioneer of early aviation in Russia. And looming large among his early accomplishments was the development of the first multi-engine aircraft, The Grand, which nobody thought would fly. Oh, and it had a balcony.
The aircraft was hugely influential in so many ways, but the sight of that exposed little porch on the front, that's the detail that feels most remarkable today, when we take flying massive machines for granted and get dry heaves at the thought of riding a bicycle without a helmet. But back in 1913, safety meant something very different. Something like "remind yourself not to jump out of the plane when you're standing on the porch built into the nose."
You could stand in the front of this plane, while it's flying, and coerce some very very trusting partner to hang over the bow like a couple of tourists re-enacting that stupid scene in Titanic.
Sure, the plane would only go around 55 MPH or so, but if you think about how windy it is when you crane your head out of your car window at 55 MPH and then think about doing that hundreds of feet above the ground, I think the concept still seems nice and bonkers.
While that open observation deck is probably the most striking design feature of the plane to our modern, candy-assed eyes (eyes have asses, right?), the real miracle of Sikorsky's creation was much more basic: its weight.
In 1913, when Sikorsky started building this plane, which, comically, happened when Sikorsky was in charge of the aircraft division of the Russian Baltic Railroad Car Works in St.Petersburg, nobody believed any plane could lift over 1300 lb. They thought this because, basically, nobody had ever done it. They even tried to drag ostriches into teh argument as an example of how heavy things wouldn't fly. Igor didn't agree.
That was just one of many things Igor didn't agree with everyone else about. The common wisdom was that multiple engines would be impossible to synchronize and control, that this plane would be far too big and heavy to ever get off the ground, that increasing lift was just a matter of increasing wing area, and that Sikorsky was about to be a huge failure all around. As you can guess, he proved all these ideas wrong.
Igor built The Grand first with two engines, and made the first test flight on May 10, 1913, himself. When newspapers reported on it, experts were so sure it would never fly that many thought the newspapers were playing a big hoax. They partially felt this way because the wingspan — 92 feet — was longer than anything seen before, and most felt such long, narrow wings would not work.
The common wisdom at the time was that wing area was what mattered, and the ratio of length to width meant little aerodynamically. As such, stubby, wide wings were thought to be the best way to get a large plane off the ground. Sikorsky said of this
"One night when everyone had gone home, I looked at the broad, short wings for he Grand. I did not like the 'feel' of them, so we changed them to long and narrow. This horrified many people...Most were guessing. They did not know. I did not know either, but my intuition told me it would fly – why not?"
Exactly, why not? Sikorsky's hunch was actually dead on, as it factored in the importance of a wing's leading edge to produce lift, which would need to be maximized to lift such a large aircraft.
The Grand of course, flew, and when it did, it became the grandfather of all big passenger planes — the ones we're most likely to fly in — to follow. It was the first with a real enclosed cabin (the balcony is the exciting part today, but the enclosed part is the real innovation here) that had seating for four passengers and three crew. The relatively luxurious cabin has seats, a couch, and even a freaking washroom!
Later, Sikorsky addedtwo more 100 HP powerplants, bringing the total to four, one pair on each wing. When he added the two final engines, he changed the name to Russky Vitaz (Russian Knight). After making over 50 flights, the Russky Vitaz met an improbably goofy end when the engine from another plane fell on it at an airshow. Instead of bothering to repair the severely squashed plane, Sikorsky set about designing the Vitaz's successor, which would become one of the first viable military bombers.
So on your next boring flight, take a moment and consider how much more exciting air travel would be if you could go for a little stroll outside.