The Ilya Muromets—aircraft pioneer Igor Sikorsky’s gigantic World War I-era bomber—gets the same amazed reaction today as it got back in 1913: That thing actually flew? Sikorsky’s surviving sons (the Russian-born designer died in 1972) hold the same awe for Sal Cavagna’s one-sixth scale flying model of the aircraft. “It’s a tribute to Sal’s devotion,” Nikolai Sikorsky says, “And [his] awareness of the historical significance of the airplane.”
Cavagna’s project began as an aeronautical puzzle. “As modelers we could not figure out how such an aircraft could fly stably without anything forward of the leading edge of the wing,” he says. “It was a real oddity.”
Over a 16-month period, the retired Foreign Service officer and veteran giant-scale modeler fashioned each component to match the original as closely as possible. There are no existing plans of the Ilya Muromets, so Cavagna had to scrounge up whatever archival material he could. Eventually, the model became a labor of love, and a tribute to the man Cavagna calls “one of the brilliant minds in aviation of the 20th century.”
In the course of building his model, Cavagna had to create more than 300 handmade metal fittings, 172 brass turnbuckles of different sizes, 200 laser-cut ribs, British Sunbeam Crusader engine replicas, and 32 functional basswood struts. He regularly consulted with the Sikorsky Museum and Archives in Connecticut, who got regular reports of his progress, with photos. He had no idea the archivists were sending his dispatches along to Sikorsky’s sons.
“My older brother was getting the updates first, and when I saw the pictures, it was just about complete,” says Nicky Sikorsky, 90. The Sikorskys’ first chance to see the model and meet Cavagna was in an unlikely place—the Two Roads Brewery in Stratford, Connecticut, on the occasion of Igor’s 127th birthday. Sergei, Nikolai and Igor Sikorsky Jr. were there, along with the President of Sikorsky, Dan Schultz. To mark the occasion, the brewers created an “unorthodox” Imperial Stout called Igor’s Dream.
“The Sikorsky brothers were absolutely taken back by the model of the Ilya Muromets,” Cavagna recalls. “They were impressed with the attention to scale fidelity, especially the V-8 engines and how I was able to hide the electric motors inside the crankcase and behind the radiators.”
For the brothers, the most touching detail may have been the one-sixth scale model of Igor Sikorsky himself, made from a photograph showing the young designer-test pilot in 1914. “Nikolai was emotional seeing his father’s figure in miniature,” says Cavagna.
Still, there’s one minor point of contention between the builder and the brothers. They like the model so much they would rather not risk flying it. Cavagna’s first flight was intended to be a hop at the 2016 Rhinebeck model jamboree, but “…the model leapt into the air to an altitude of around 40 feet and continued to fly down the grass strip for around 1,000 feet or so.” He’s flown it three other times, noting, that just like the original, in level flight it flies nose down about three degrees. “Surprisingly, the aircraft is extremely stable in all axes of flight,” he says.
Still, Nikolai and his brothers would be happy to see the model stay on the ground. “He told my friends to please not let me attempt to fly it,” says Cavagna. “If I did, they were instructed to hit me with a stick.” In fact, he has decided to keep his creation grounded while he moves on to his newest project—a one-third scale Fokker Triplane.