Long before the VS-44, and even longer before the Blackhawk helicopter and the many other renowned aircraft bearing his name, Igor Sikorsky was a young aircraft designer in pre-revolutionary Russia. During this period he designed and built the “S” series of biplanes, of which the S-16 was the most successful. This fighter/scout aircraft was conceived as an escort for the giant four-engine Il’ya Moromets bombers during strategic raids on East Prussia during WWI. It first flew in 1915 for the Czar’s air force and its last flights were in 1924 for the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war.
The S-16 was the first Sikorsky fighter with a machine gun synchronized to fire through the propeller without hitting the blades and was the first Russian fighter actually built in Russia. The 4-wheeled front landing gear was intended to deal with “soggy Russian fields”, and the airplane could be equipped instead with a pair of skis for when those soggy fields became frozen during the harsh Russian winters.
The airplane was powered by several different rotary engines including a 110 h.p. LeRhone and an 80 h.p. Gnome. As were all the aircraft that Igor Sikorsky designed in Russia, the S-16s were built at the R-BVZ (Russo-Baltic Wagon Works.)
Sikorsky was forced to leave Russia after the revolution and emigrated to the United States in 1919. For many years, under communism in the Soviet Union, Sikorsky officially “never existed”, but an admiring aeronautical engineering community secretly kept his works alive. The plans for the S-16 were classified “top secret” put into storage, and forgotten.
The story picks up again nearly 70 years later. Vadim Mikheyev, a Russian aviation history buff and friend of Igor Sikorsky’s son Sergei, encountered an aviation club consisting of engineers working on the Soviet “Buran” space shuttle project. The club, sponsored by a native capitalist (“New Russian”) had decided to manufacture and sell flying replicas of WWI aircraft. Mikheyev persuaded them to build a replica of the S-16 and unearthed some original production drawings to work from. Construction on the replica began in 1989.
Wings and control surfaces were made from wood, but a lack of ash, the original wood used for the fuselage, prompted the crew to use stainless steel as a substitute. Landing gear was fabricated and a vintage Vickers machine gun was located. The fate of the project then took a turn for the worse; the project’s sponsor ran out of money as did the Buran shuttle program. The factory was abandoned with five unfinished airframes at various stages of construction.
The S-16 was about 3/4 complete. Hastily crated up, it changed hands several times and was kept in various barns and sheds around Moscow. Fortunately, Vadim Mikheyev was able to keep an eye on the unfinished airplane and ensure that it was not badly damaged.
In 1997 the Igor Sikorsky Historical Archives was founded for the preservation of company artifacts and documents; with funding through this organization, the S-16 was obtained and was flown via Lufthansa air freight from Moscow with the assistance of the Moscow office of United Technologies.
Volunteers then continued the restoration. Some parts such as the ailerons and wheels had to be rebuilt, while others such as the wing ribs and spars were usable. The stainless steel fuselage had been slightly twisted, and it was primarily for this reason that the restoration team decided that it would not be practical to restore the aircraft to flyable condition. A non-operating 80 h.p. LeRhone engine was obtained from Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome and fitted to the airframe.
Another modification was the use of Dacron as a fabric, which will last much longer than the original linen.
The restoration was completed in late 1997. The Igor Sikorsky historical Archives agreed to lend the S-16 to NEAM for an indefinite period and on June 19, 1998, it was placed on display in the World War I area of the Military Aviation Hangar.
- Length: 19 ft. 4 in.
- Wing Span: 26 ft. 3 in.
- Weight, Empty: 897 lbs.
- Weight, Fully Loaded: 1,490 lbs
- Wing Load: 5.5 lbs./sq. ft.
- Max. Speed: 74 m.p.h.