Dispatch from the Field: Ike and Nikita Fly to Camp David in Igor’s Helicopter

S-58 on White House lawn

A true story.

In September of 1959, Premier Nikita Khrushchev met with President Eisenhower in Washington DC, the first visit by any Soviet leader to the US. It was the height of the Cold War, tensions were high, and so were suspicions. After days of largely unproductive meetings, Ike suggested going to the Presidential retreat at Camp David to relax for a few days. “Dah” Khrushchev replied, assuming that “nearby” meant a short drive.

Arrangements were made by staff, but when Ike led Niki across the South Lawn to a couple of waiting helicopters, Nikita refused to board. He was terrified of helicopters. And for good reason. There is a saying that helicopters are thousands of parts all trying to fly apart from each other. Harry Reasoner once wrote:

“The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by it’s nature wants to fly, and if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly. A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance the helicopter stops flying; immediately and disastrously…

“This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot, and why in generality, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooding introspective anticipators of trouble. They know if something bad has not happened it is about to.”

Khrushchev thought it might be an assassination plot, and that his chopper might be shot down. Ike assured him that it was safe, and when Ike told him that they would both go in the same helicopter, Khrushchev agreed. Ike let him sit in the Presidential seat, with a commanding view out the oversized window. While Niki fidgeted and squirmed, Ike and others explained to him what they were seeing as they flew over the Maryland suburbs. Someone explained that the helicopter, a Sikorsky S-58, was made by a company founded by a Russian-born designer, Igor Sikorsky.

In time, Khrushchev became comfortable and even enjoyed the flight. When Ike asked how he liked the flight, Niki confronted Ike with his famous wagging finger that he waved one millimeter from Ike’s nose and said “Of course it is a good and safe aircraft, it was designed by a Russian!”

“Yes,” Ike replied. “A Russian who was smart enough to get the hell out of Russia.”

Sergei

As told to me by Sergei Sikorsky (left), whose father Igor immigrated to the US in 1919 following the Bolshevik revolution. Sergei retired as VP of Special Projects for the company.

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