John Sanduski, Pioneer Helicopter Pilot

John Sanduski, Pioneer Helicopter Pilot
By Stuart Leuthner

On a hot afternoon in 1944, a crowd of more than 100 officers and enlisted men craned their necks, watching two specks growing larger in the cloudless sky. They had gathered on a runway at Freeman Army Air Field to watch the arrival of two new aircraft. The base, located in Seymour, Ind., was an advanced twin-engine training school, where student pilots flew Beech AT-10s before graduating into B-25s, B-17s or B-24s.

A short time later, two strange machines, looking and sounding more like large insects than airplanes, arrived over the field, circled and proceeded to hover in front of the control tower. The crowd of onlookers couldn’t believe their eyes. What kind of airplane can do that?

The two craft then proceeded to the runway, hovering again for a moment, before dropping straight down to a gentle landing. The pilots, Maj. John Sanduski and Lt. Norbert Guttenberger, climbed out of their machines and were welcomed by Col. Elmer Rundquist, the commanding officer of the base.

The curious crowd soon gathered around the two aircraft, marveling at the sight they had just witnessed. One man, a mechanic, walked slowly around one of the machines, peering into the engine bay behind the cockpit. He turned to Sanduski and saluted.

“Sir, if you don’t mind me asking, what the hell kind of airplane is that?” he questioned.

With a grin, Sanduski replied, “A helicopter.”

John J. Sanduski (left) and his wife, Irene, with helicopter pioneer Igor I. Sikorsky, who signed Sanduski’s license to fly a helicopter.

John J. Sanduski (left) and his wife, Irene, with helicopter pioneer Igor I. Sikorsky, who signed Sanduski’s license to fly a helicopter.

The idea for the helicopter is an old one. Leonardo da Vinci sketched a machine that he believed would rise vertically. More than a thousand years ago, the Chinese flew toys with feather rotors that would ascend when the shaft was rotated smartly between the palms. Even the Wright brothers experimented with ideas for a helicopter. But it wasn’t until Sept. 14, 1939, that Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky managed to hover for 10 seconds in a single-rotor contraption his friends dubbed “Igor’s Nightmare.” From the helicopter’s humble beginnings, it’s become a highly useful, versatile machine, performing work that no other vehicle can do in both civilian and military applications.

Sanduski was there almost from the beginning. His license to fly helicopters was signed by Sikorsky himself. He organized the original Army Air Force Helicopter Training Detachment in 1944, and was the chief pilot for the world’s first postwar commercial helicopter taxi service, Boston’s Skyway Corporation.

Helicopter pilot training school

Sanduski grew up in Omaha, Neb, where he attended Creighton University and received a law degree in 1940. Like most young men of his generation, he realized it would only be a matter of time before he would end up in a military uniform.

John Sanduski holds a model of the Sikorsky R-6. A 225-hp engine gave the helicopter a top speed of 95 mph and a range of 150 miles.

John Sanduski holds a model of the Sikorsky R-6. A 225-hp engine gave the helicopter a top speed of 95 mph and a range of 150 miles.

“I originally joined the infantry, but soon figured out I didn’t want to spend the war in a trench, so I wiggled my way into the Army Air Force,” he said.

Graduating from flight school in 1942, Sanduski ended up at Craig Field, Selma, Ala., teaching future fighter pilots in the AT-6 trainer. Instructing shaky cadets seven days a week soon became old hat, so Sanduski applied for combat. However, military brass felt he was doing just fine where he was, and it appeared that Sanduski would spend the war in Selma.

One afternoon in code class, Sanduski found himself sitting next to the group’s operations officer, Maj. Bob Gould, who was obviously agitated. When Sanduski asked him what the problem was, Gould tossed a telegram on the table. It was a request for an officer with the rank of captain or above to head up a soon-to-be-organized helicopter school.

Sanduski, then a captain, had no clue what a helicopter was. The telegram referred to it as a “secret weapon,” and he immediately told Gould, “I’ll take it! Anything to get out of here.”

Gould told him to calm down and that he would keep him in mind. A month later, Sanduski was told to report to Washington, D.C., where the “Pentagon types,” as he described them, looked him over. A month after his return to Craig Field, Sanduski received orders to choose five officers to train as helicopter pilots, and 14 enlisted men, experienced in aircraft maintenance. They were to report to Bridgeport, Conn., where they would learn how to fly and maintain helicopters at the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation. Once he had selected his staff, Sanduski would be in charge of creating a helicopter pilot training school at an unspecified location. He began to wonder if he had made a big mistake.

“Helicopter pilot training school sounded like more instruction,” he said. “I had a few bad dreams that week and still didn’t know what a helicopter looked like.”

Sanduski arrived in Bridgeport with Capt. William Moore, 1st Lt. Fred Kelly, 1st Lt. Bert Thrasher, 2nd Lt. Norbert Guttenberger and 2nd Lt. Henry Otto. His first impression of the Sikorsky plant gave him pause.

“The factory was located in a building where somebody had been making plumbing supplies,” he said. “It was a very unglamorous setting for a new type of aircraft to be born.”

After a briefing, Sanduski finally got to see the “secret weapon.” At a small flying area behind the plant, test pilots were putting several helicopters through their paces.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, what the hell are these things?'” he recalled. “They were going up, down, sideways and hovering, and could turn on a dime.”

On his second day at the plant, Sanduski found that he was starting to get interested, and by the third day, he admits to being “hooked by those flying elevators.” The helicopters he watched that afternoon were Sikorsky’s first commercial effort, the R-4B “Hoverfly.” The boxy machine had a steel tube fuselage, covered with fabric. Side-by-side bucket seats were provided for a pilot and one passenger. A Warner R-500 engine, producing 200 horsepower, turned three 18-foot rotors—steel tubes covered with wood and fabric. The R-4B had a top speed of 75 mph and a range of 130 miles.

Sanduski and his crew found the performance of the early rotors to be rather disconcerting.

“The wood would soak up moisture on a damp day, and one would go this way and another would go that way,” he said. “I’m exaggerating, but not much.”

John Sanduski demonstrates rescue techniques at the Coast Guard Air Station, Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1944.

John Sanduski demonstrates rescue techniques at the Coast Guard Air Station, Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1944.

The next few days found Sanduski and his five pilots listening to a series of lectures given by Sikorsky’s test pilots and engineers. The notes they compiled were to be used to create flight and maintenance manuals used for training at the new school. Sikorsky, who Sanduski remembers as “a genius who was always floating around the engineering department,” gave some of the lectures. Since Sanduski’s involvement with the military was important for future sales, he often found himself in the inventor’s office.

“He would ask my opinion on different problems, and then start to tell me his plans for the helicopter,” Sanduski said. “Sikorsky was always looking towards the future and wanted us to sell the machine and its capabilities at every opportunity.”

Sikorsky, who was called “Uncle Igor” behind his back, also admired a trim set of ankles.

“He loved women and would always go out of his way to look at their legs,” Sanduski laughed. “One day he came out of his office and tripped over something as he was staring at one of the secretary’s legs. He went head over heels and all of us had a good laugh.”

The new helicopter unit became official when Sanduski and his five officers received orders on Jan. 29, 1944, to report to Freeman Field, Seymour, Ind.

“We were given a little corner of the field, way off the beaten track,” Sanduski said. “In the beginning, we were treated like orphans.”

Once the school was up and running, Sanduski and his pilots returned to Connecticut and began to fly the R4-B. Their instructors were Sikorsky’s test pilots, and practice flights were flown in the confines of the Sikorsky facility. Once they soloed, however, the new pilots began to gain confidence, and they were soon venturing off away from the facility. Although many of the students had experience flying fixed-wing aircraft, this wasn’t a guarantee of success in a helicopter.

“In one case, we had to fail a man who couldn’t adjust his reactions to helicopter flying,” Sanduski said. “He had been flying airplanes for 23 years!”

Entries in the school’s official log suggest that even with a competent pilot at the controls, the fragile machines were prone to accidents. From the log:

June 9 (the day after the arrival): “The first accident occurred today. Lt. Otto, while trying to make a backward takeoff, cracked up one of the rotor blades.”

June 17: “One helicopter flew in the morning. In the afternoon both planes were out of commission.”

June 28: “Lt. Otto and F/O Crawford cracked up ‘505’ today near the helicopter headquarters … Both were slightly shaken up. The ship was ‘washed out.'”

Flying was done at low altitudes, and since very few people had ever seen a helicopter, observers on the ground gawked and pointed as the fledgling chopper pilots flew over.

“We’d fly seven days a week if the weather cooperated,” Sanduski remembered. “One beautiful day in May, a mechanic and I were flying up and down Long Island Sound to build up time. We spotted two girls on the beach in swimming suits, waving at us. I had the guy with me drop a note that read, ‘I’m Major John Sanduski of the Air Force in my new helicopter. Why don’t you write your name and telephone number in the sand.’ The girls did just that and we had the pleasure of enjoying a drink or two with them later that evening.”

A flock of helicopters lands after a training mission at Sheppard Field, Texas. Both R-4B and R-6 models are pictured.

A flock of helicopters lands after a training mission at Sheppard Field, Texas. Both R-4B and R-6 models are pictured.

After five weeks at the Sikorsky plant, the pilots had accumulated 25 hours in their logbooks. They returned to Freeman Field; two weeks later word came that two R4-Bs were ready for delivery. Sanduski and Guttenberger returned to Connecticut and made preparations to fly the machines to Indiana. The trip from Bridgeport to Freeman Field took three days; the two pilots made headlines as they flew their “egg beaters” across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“The newspapers reported that we were flying two futuristic helicopters at record speed,” Sanduski said. “We were lucky to make 65 miles an hour.”

Sanduski and Guttenberger flew a “loose formation,” stopping approximately every hour and a half for fuel. Before the pilots left Connecticut, Sanduski asked Sikorsky if they would be landing at airfields for fuel.

“Igor replied, ‘No!'” Sanduski said. “He wanted us to get our fuel at regular service stations. That was typical of his thinking. Show the machine off to the public and demonstrate what it could do. Needless to say, service station operators were astonished when we would touch down and taxi up to the pumps.”

Everywhere the machines landed a crowd would soon gather. The pilots found it necessary to post a guard so that curious onlookers wouldn’t break something in their enthusiasm to examine the R4-Bs.

“We were getting so much attention, I began to feel like Lindbergh,” Sanduski exclaimed.

On one leg of the trip Guttenberger began to gesture toward the rear of Sanduski’s craft. Because of the R4-B’s rather anemic performance, the added weight of radios and parachutes were out of the question. Sanduski couldn’t see what Guttenberger was pointing at.

“I wondered what the hell was wrong,” he said. “I couldn’t hear any weird noises, so I cocked the ship to one side and then could see something coming out of the fuselage, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.”

When he landed, Sanduski found that the precious lecture notes he had taken in Connecticut, which he had stored in a zippered pouch, had somehow gotten loose and were being shredded by the fan motor. The confetti was then sucked out of the fuselage and distributed along their route. This was what they had seen spewing out of the fuselage. It was a low point for Sanduski.

“All the stuff we were going to use to write the manuals was lost,” he recalled. “I don’t know if I’d have felt worse if I had crashed the helicopter.”

The pilots used the Pennsylvania Turnpike as a navigation guide between Harrisburg and Bedford; they crossed the Allegheny Mountains at that point. The helicopter’s limited power required the pilots to “tack” up the mountains. Guttenberger wrote in his report: “Instead of going straight over the top of a mountain, we would skirt along the side of a ridge until we got near the top. Then we would just hop over the summit and slide down the other side.”

John Sanduski (standing, far right) was in the first graduating class of helicopter pilots at Freeman Field, Aug.11, 1944.

John Sanduski (standing, far right) was in the first graduating class of helicopter pilots at Freeman Field, Aug.11, 1944.

The weather was hot, and when the pilots were ready to leave Bedford, they found they could barely hover their machines. Sanduski decided they should make a conventional rolling takeoff that would allow them to build up flying speed. The Pennsylvania State Police blocked off part of the Lincoln Highway, and sailors who were attending the radio school at the Bedford Springs Hotel were enlisted to push the two helicopters into the clear. Both pilots managed to take off without any problems and were soon flying westward.

On the third day, while heading for Waynesburg, Penn., Sanduski realized they were lost. He spotted a golf course and motioned to Guttenberger to follow him down. Sanduski landed in the rough, but Guttenberger—described by Sanduski as “a guy who considered himself a hot fighter pilot type”—came in and made a beautiful landing right in the middle of a green.

“I thought the Air Force was going to end up with the bill for that one,” he recalled. “But, fortunately, he didn’t do much damage to the turf.”

Sanduski now had another problem.

“Here we were, two officers with their brand new helicopters in the middle of a golf course. How would it look if I told the locals we were lost? They would think we were going to lose the war,” he said.

Sanduski got out a map and looked it over, until finally, one of the golfers pointed to the golf course’s location. The two pilots nodded, pretending they knew exactly where they were and had only landed to stretch their legs.

“We were only 15 miles off course,” Sanduski noted.

The two pilots arrived at Freeman Field on June 8, 1944, having managed an average cruising speed of 65 mph and altitude of 500. Waiting on the runway was Col. Elmer T. Rundquiest, commanding officer at Freeman Field. After hovering in front of the control tower, Sanduski and Guttenberger landed their aircraft, stepped out onto the tarmac and gave the colonel a crisp salute.

Now that the school had two operational aircraft, Sanduski and his group began teaching future helicopter pilots. He also found that his operation was becoming the center of attention.

“It was frustrating,” he said. “Instead of teaching students, it seemed like all we were doing was answering questions and taking officers for demonstration rides.”

One general, visiting from Washington, went up with Sanduski and asked, “If one of the rotor blades comes off, do you lose a third of your lift?” Sanduski, wise to military ways, reassured the general that the machine would simply keep flying.

“What I wanted to tell him was, ‘No, you lose your life!'” he quipped.

Sanduski would always include a few maneuvers to show off the capabilities of the helicopter. One of those was the quick stop.

“You fly along at a good clip, then decrease pitch and power, at the same time coming back on the stick. The nose comes up and the helicopter stops, just like that. It would scare the hell out of them, especially if they had some flying time in conventional airplanes under their belt. They would grab for anything and everything in the cockpit to hold on,” he laughed.

During October 1944, Sanduski flew the first helicopter emergency medical service mission on record when a training aircraft crashed 15 miles from Freeman Field. Using the smoke from the downed aircraft as a beacon, Sanduski arrived at the scene before other emergency vehicles. He picked up a survivor and flew him to the hospital. From that day on, a helicopter would fly a member of the bases’ medical personnel to all crashes. This is now standard operating procedure with the military and countless civilian EMS systems throughout the world.

As completed helicopters came off the Sikorsky assembly lines, they were flown to Freeman Field. The school’s first class of helicopter pilots graduated on Aug. 11, 1944. A communication from Brig. Gen. F.O. Carroll, chief of the engineering division of the Army Air Force, stated, “These officers have performed their duties as flight instructors for helicopter pilots in a superior manner.”

John Sanduski brings the Skyway helicopter in for a landing somewhere in New England during a barnstorming tour.

John Sanduski brings the Skyway helicopter in for a landing somewhere in New England during a barnstorming tour.

As training progressed, it soon became obvious that the school needed more room. Thus, in early December, the unit’s 18 helicopters were flown to Chanute Field, Rantoul, Ill. In May 1945, they moved again, this time to Sheppard Field, located in Wichita Falls, Texas.

By then, the school had 28 helicopters, including several of the new Sikorsky R-6s “Hoverfly II” craft. Aluminum and Plexiglas took the place of fabric, and the squared look of the R4-B was replaced with a smooth, curved fuselage. A 225-hp Lycoming O-435-7 engine gave the R-6 a top speed of 95 mph and a range of 150 miles.

Helicopter students at Sheppard Field were given 70 hours of ground instruction and approximately 35 hours of flight time. Unlike fixed-wing pilots, helicopter pilots received special emphasis on maintenance, since the Army Air Force believed they would be on their own in the field.

Upon graduation, each new chopper pilot received a diploma declaring he’d been awarded the certificate because he had “remained motionless in space, flown forward, backward, sideward and vertically, without serious consequences.” Sanduski, “Chief Rotorhead” signed the certificates.

The Army Air Force was beginning to get requests for the helicopter school’s graduates to fly missions in the Pacific. In May 1944, the first helicopter flew in a combat zone. Col. Phillip G. Cochran, commanding officer of the 1st Air Commando Group, wrote, “Today the ‘egg beater’ went into action and the damn thing acted like it had good sense.”

Liberty ships had been converted into ARUFs (Aircraft Repair Units, Floating). Helicopters, many equipped with twin pontoons, would shuttle parts from these floating maintenance ships to the bomber and fighter bases. This technique proved very effective as the island-to-island invasion moved in on Japan and was the first practical use of helicopters by the U.S. military.

Moving on

But Sanduski was getting fidgety again. Although he thoroughly enjoyed his duties at the school, he wanted to “see what was going on in the Pacific.”

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to speak with authority about the helicopter’s future,” he said.

He wrote to a friend in Washington and asked if he could get him transferred. In September 1945, he received orders to “head up a team and help the Far Eastern Air Forces in setting up helicopter operations within their Emergency Rescue Squadrons.”

“This will include assembling R-6 helicopters, training of pilots and mechanics, and setting up spare parts stock levels, along with demonstrations of the latest rescue techniques, plus a selling job to the ‘big brass,'” the orders continued.

The helicopter was already proving its ability to save lives. On several occasions, pilots—all graduates of Sanduski’s school—had flown missions to rescue wounded soldiers from behind enemy lines. One, Lt. Robert Cowgill, flying his R-6A named Little Brown Jug (after the well-known Glen Miller tune), was credited with saving the lives of 17 men in the Philippines.

A few of the top officers evidently thought the helicopter could do almost anything. Pilot F.A. Cote remembered a colonel who requested a helicopter.

“He wanted me to hover above the thousand-foot peak near Baguio City,” he recalled. “He then planned to climb down a rope and make some arrangements with the troops below.”

Sanduski and three enlisted men flew to Manila and set up a base at Nichols Field. Remembering Igor Sikorsky’s exhortation to demonstrate the helicopter’s abilities, they began to do exactly that. In 1945, just before Christmas, Sanduski was talking to a chaplain in the officer’s club when he suddenly hit upon a “real caper.” He would deliver Santa Claus by helicopter.

John Sanduski (far left) with flight crew and officials of Skyways Corporation’s Sikorsky S-51.

John Sanduski (far left) with flight crew and officials of Skyways Corporation’s Sikorsky S-51.

“I asked the priest if there was an orphanage in the area,” he remembered. “He told me about the Maryknoll Mission in Malaban Province. The nuns thought it was a wonderful idea, and they managed to convince local merchants to fill two trucks with toys. All I needed was a Santa Claus.”

Sanduski didn’t want just anybody to play the part.

“If I used Joe Blow, no publicity,” he said.

Maj. Alfred E. Smith (son of New York City’s famous “Happy Warrior”) was stationed in Manila, and Sanduski asked him if he would play Santa.

“He turned me down a couple of times, but we got him drunk and he finally said yes,” Sanduski said.

Sanduski, with Smith in his Santa suit, took off from Nichols Field and headed for the Maryknoll mission. He timed his arrival to coincide with the trucks, and 2,500 orphans watched in amazement as the helicopter circled and then touched down. It was a thrill that Sanduski will never forget.

“Those kids were so excited after so many years of horror and war,” he said. “If we ever did any helicopter selling, we certainly did a job with those orphan children on that Christmas day.”

In January, Sanduski and his men were flown to Okinawa, and he began to demonstrate rescue techniques with a boatswain’s chair attached to two cables suspended from the R-6. On January 26, Sanduski was flying from the deck of a destroyer to shore. An officer, playing the part of a victim, suddenly lost his grip and fell into the water. Feeling the loss of weight, Sanduski quickly turned back. The officer was obviously unconscious and his lifebelt not inflated.

Thinking fast, Sanduski ditched his helicopter near the downed man and managed to get out of the aircraft before it sank from sight. He then swam to the stricken officer and inflated his Mae West. Treading water in the rough seas, Sanduski kept him afloat until a Navy crash boat arrived.

In spite of Sanduski’s efforts, the officer died several days later of his injuries. For his actions that day, Sanduski was awarded the Soldier’s Medal.


When the war in the Pacific ended, Sanduski flew back to Sheppard Field and was discharged with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

“I thought about a career in the Air Force, but I had a law degree and wanted to get on with my life,” he said.

However, when he returned to Omaha, Sanduski found a letter waiting for him from the Skyways Corporation of Providence, Rhode Island.

“They had been in touch with me for more than a year before the war ended,” he said. “They were setting up a commercial helicopter operation and wanted me to fly for them. I had mixed emotions, but figured that if I didn’t give it a try I might regret it someday.”

When Sanduski arrived in Providence, Skyways had an office, but no helicopters. But three weeks later, he went to the Sikorsky plant and took delivery of a brand new S-51. Like most manufacturers, Sikorsky’s first postwar products were military machines, converted for civilian use. Skyways’ first—and as it would turn out—only helicopter (its military designation was R-5), was a four-place machine. A 450-hp Pratt & Whitney R985 radial engine gave it a top speed of more than 100 mph and a 360-mile range.

Sanduski was given the title of vice president of operations and chief pilot.

The world’s first scheduled helicopter service followed this route from Logan Field to the roof of the Motor Mart in downtown Boston.

The world’s first scheduled helicopter service followed this route from Logan Field to the roof of the Motor Mart in downtown Boston.

“It sounded better than it was,” he said. “I probably should’ve been called chief bottle washer. We were all doing a little bit of everything because money was so tight.”

Boyd Kesselring, who had flown helicopters with Sanduski during the war, signed on as second pilot.

“Skyways’ mechanic had worked for Sikorsky, because the company wanted somebody who really knew the machine,” he recalled. “We had uniforms designed and hired an attractive ex-Wave to sell tickets to our events.”

While executives shopped around for business, Sanduski barnstormed around New England.

“It was like something out of the 1920s,” he said. “Waldo Pepper, here we come. The company would advertise in the papers that we would be in such and such a park: ‘Come see the amazing helicopter! It doesn’t need a runway! Goes straight up!’ We’d give rides for three bucks. The company wasn’t making any money, but we were certainly getting attention.”

Mission to Manville

It was the “Mission to Manville” that provided Skyways with a combination of much needed cash flow and high-grade publicity. Georgina Campbell, the estranged eighth wife of Tommy Manville, the heir to the Johns-Manville asbestos fortune, called the Skyways office and inquired about renting a helicopter.

Tommy Manville was married 13 times, winning him an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. He was left the family money in trust, with the stipulation that he could draw a million dollars from the principal when he married. Since the lawyers forgot to stipulate only one marriage, the playboy engaged in serial monogamy. After one divorce, he stated, “She cried, and the judge wiped her tears with my checkbook.”

Campbell wanted large letters attached to the aircraft’s tailcone spelling “Happy Birthday.” They were to fly out to Manville’s estate near New Rochelle on Long Island Sound, land and drop off a birthday cake. Manville would see all of this, it would rekindle his love and they would live happily ever after. Or so she thought.

Manville had a restraining order on Campbell and was trying to serve divorce papers. She had a secret meeting with Skyways, which agreed to do the job for $3,000.

“We needed the money,” Sanduski said. “When they told her the price, she never batted an eye.”

On the day of the mission, Campbell arrived at the Skyways field carrying a large cake, complete with candles, inside a wicker basket.

“I told her to get in the backseat because Kesselring was going with us,” Sanduski remembered. “I figured if we were going to have to fight with the cops, it wouldn’t hurt to have an extra body along.”

Sanduski arrived over Manville’s estate and began to circle.

“It was beautiful, high on a bluff overlooking the water,” he said. “However, I was starting to have second thoughts about landing. I told Georgina that the helicopter cost $10,000—and if they caught us, it would probably be confiscated. That would be the end of Skyways.”

She turned on the water works and Sanduski weakened.

“She was a nice gal, so I decided, ‘What the hell,'” he said.

Spotting an opening in the trees, Sanduski landed. He told Kesselring to keep his eyes open and let him know if he saw anybody coming. He kept the rotors turning while Campbell got out and put the cake on the ground. Kesselring started yelling that a car was headed towards them. With his passenger quickly back on board, Sanduski lifted off and headed for Providence. It was reported later that Manville watched the entire operation from inside his house, but it obviously had little effect on his feelings concerning Campbell, since he went on to marry five more times.

First scheduled passenger helicopter service

In the spring of 1947, Georgina Campbell, the estranged eighth wife of Tommy Manville, rented Skyways’ helicopter to deliver a birthday cake to the asbestos heir’s estate, hoping it would help win back his affections.

In the spring of 1947, Georgina Campbell, the estranged eighth wife of Tommy Manville, rented Skyways’ helicopter to deliver a birthday cake to the asbestos heir’s estate, hoping it would help win back his affections.

In April 1947, Skyways began the first scheduled passenger helicopter service in the world, flying between Logan Field and the Motor Mart garage in downtown Boston. The first passengers to take the two-and-a-half-minute trip were Igor Sikorsky and Mrs. Edward Logan, whose husband the airport had been named after. Among the notables Sanduski would shuttle were Greer Garson, Gregory Peck, Walter Winchell and Trygve Lie, secretary general of the United Nations. Sanduski remembers those trips with mixed emotions.

“The Motor Mart was seven or eight floors high, right across from the Statler Hotel,” he said. “There were antennas, wires, elevator shafts and I don’t know what else to think about. Landing helicopters wasn’t included in the original design. The tall buildings would create some very strange wind currents, and landing was sometimes an extremely interesting experience.”

On one flight, Sanduski’s passengers were Fred Waring, the orchestra leader, and his female singer. The weather, marginal when Sanduski left Logan Airport, was getting worse.

“We arrived over the garage, and I was looking at the windsock that was located on the roof,” he remembered. “It was jumping all over the place. I was thinking it might be a good idea to go back to Logan.”

After circling the garage several times, he decided he could make it.

“You hate to quit,” he said. “I started to bring her in, and Waring and the gal are in the back chatting about how pretty Boston was. I’m up in the front, drenched in a cold sweat.”

Just as Sanduski was about to set the craft down, the wind completely died and shifted around 180 degrees.

“I couldn’t recover fast enough, and before I could hit the throttle, we hit and really bounced. Thank goodness I still had a lot of torque; when I finally got us down, the helicopter was facing the opposite direction,” he recalled.

Sanduski shut the engine down and the bandleader and his singer climbed out of the helicopter.

“They thought the landing was just part of the show, and went about their merry way,” he said. “I just sat there for a few minutes, happy to be in one piece, and then decided I better take a look and see if that little whoopsie doopsie did any damage.”

Finding a ripple in the skin of the tailcone, Sanduski called the Sikorsky factory and they told him to bring it in.

“I picked up a mechanic and flew the ship to Connecticut,” he said. “The Sikorsky engineers couldn’t find anything wrong, so they put a patch on the tailcone and we were back in business.”

Experiences like that, plus scant resources, convinced Sanduski to leave Skyways.

“I was with them for a year, and it was obvious that it would be a long time before we started to make any real money,” he said. “It was a smart move, because shortly after I left, they folded. The idea was just too far ahead of its time.”

Moving back to Omaha, Sanduski went to work for Mutual of Omaha. He transferred to Chicago, but later left the company and opened his own insurance agency. He operated that agency until his retirement in 1988.

Sanduski was an active and enthusiastic member of the Twirly Birds, an organization made up of pioneer helicopter pilots. To qualify as a founder member, a pilot had to have soloed a helicopter prior to V-J Day (Aug. 14, 1945). Sanduski and his wife, Irene, faithfully attended reunions of the original helicopter pilot training school.

Prior to his death in Oct. 26, 1996, when asked to contrast today’s helicopters with those he flew, Sanduski shook his head.

“I have friends who are still involved with helicopters, and sometimes they’ll come through Chicago and take me up for a ride,” he said. “There’s no comparison with these machines and the ones we flew during the war. Only the concept is the same.”