Propeller-Driven Sleighs

Gallery opened: July 2004

Updated: 12 Dec 2022

Unknown Propeller-Driven Sleigh added
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Igor Sikorsky is famous for his pivotal role in developing a practical helicopter, but years before this he built a rather more specialised form of transport. He produced not one but two propeller-driven sleighs when he was only twenty.
In late 1909 and early 1910, and after, Igor Ivanovitch Sikorsky and two or three passengers would drive at high speed around the snowy streets of Kiev in a sleigh driven by a rear-mounted engine and propeller. It all sounds highly dangerous to pedestrians, but perhaps you could get away with that sort of thing in pre-revolutionary Russia if you had the right rank. Sikorsky's motives were not mere joyriding; he was studying engine-propeller combinations in preparation for aircraft design.

Left: A Sikorsky Propeller-Driven Sleigh in 1912.

Sikorsky is at the wheel. Note the large headlight for night running.

The blurred propeller blade at upper left and the snow being thrown up by the front skis seem to indicate that the sleigh was in motion when the photograph was taken.

Few mechanical details of these machines are known. Steering was presumably through swivelling front skis, and the dark framework to the left of the picture appears to be a rudimentary propeller-guard. Its main function was probably to protect the propeller blades if the machine turned over.

At least three different engines were tried on the sleighs; the last two are known to have been 15 and 25 horsepower motorcycle engines.

Sikorsky attempted to make a helicopter in 1910, but like his contemporaries found the control and stability problems to be too great. By 1913 he had built the world's first four-engined aeroplane, the 9000-pound Bolshoi-Baltisky, but it was not until 1938 that he returned to the work on helicopters which is his greatest claim to fame.

Left: A Propeller-Driven Sleigh on the cover of Popular Science in 1912

The magazine contains an article on a German prop-sleigh.

Steering is by the small front skis, and sprag-brakes can be seen at the rear, operated by the lever being held by the rear passenger. A speed of 60 mph is claimed.

Left: French Propeller-Driven Sleigh: 1914

All that is known about this machine is that it was alleged to have crossed the Alps, presumably via one of the mountain passes. This a rather small V-twin petrol engine driving a large propellor through belt reduction.

From Popular Mechanics, April 1914

Left: Unknown Propeller-Driven Sleigh: 19??

This appears to be a conversion of a sail-powered ice-yacht. More info here.

The photo may have been taken on Lake St Clair in Detroit.

A Canadian prop-sleigh was built by 15-year-old Armand Bombardier in Valcourt, Quebec in 1922.

It was powered by the engine from a Model T Ford, and had a frame with four ski runners. The front runners were steered by a rope, and the engine was mounted at the rear, driving a hand-carved wooden propellor. There was a single seat at the front. It made its first (and possibly last) trial run in December 1922.


Left: An aerosled in Russia: 1919

This appears to be a prototype of the Russian ANT aerosled series, the first of which were built in September 1919 by the Soviets and used in the civil war raging at the time. Note the curved prop-guard to the right.

Left: An ANT-IV aerosled: introduced 1924.

The ANT-IV was fitted with a 100 HP air-cooled radial engine. In 1930 it was used in the first regular mail and passenger aerosled line between the cities of Cheboksary and Kanash in Chuvashia. In the first 35 days 244 passengers and 1132 kg of mail were transported, covering over 5000 km in total. The 85 km journey from Cheboksary to Kanash was completed by the aerosled in 2.5 hours, instead of 10-12 hours on horseback. The ANT-IV was used with success in Kazakhstan and other republics.


Left: Two-prop sleigh in America: 1922

This seems to be a well-engineered machine; the talk of guy wires and turnbuckles suggests that the designer had some experience in early aircraft construction. The use of two propellors running at different speeds is interesting. Normally when you have pull and push propellors in tandem, the rear one is less efficient as it works in air disturbed by the front propellor; this was found out in the design of airship nacelles. Whether running the rear prop faster reduces this effect is a good question; I suspect not.

However, the use of two propellors, wholly without guards, suggests that this machine might well have been twice as dangerous as the average prop-sled.

Prop-sleighs were actually used in by the Soviet Army; they were normally called "aerosleds". The Red Army had several aerosled detachments that were employed with some success in winter operations against the Finns during the Winter War. They were also used in fighting the Germans in the severe winter of 1941/42, giving the Russians a significant advantage in mobility on deep snow.

Left: A NKL-26 Russian military aerosled.

This version had a five-cylinder air-cooled radial engine. The fuel tank was in the rear of the hull. The V-shaped frame to the right is a guard to prevent the propellor breaking if the vehicle turned over.

The driver sat behind the vision slit at the front, steering by turning both the front and back skis with a small steering wheel; the gunner sat behind him.

Note that some crude retouching appears have been applied.

Left: Diagram of the NKL-26 Russian military aerosled.

I am afraid I am quite unable to translate the Russian, but most of it is self-explanatory.

The Russian aerosleds were used primarily for maintaining communications between units and formations, and moving ammunition, rations, and petroleum products to forces operating away from their supply bases. The aerosleds also evacuated the wounded from the battlefield. Sometimes aerosled detachments were used on combat missions, launching surprise attacks against the enemy.

Much of the information on Russian aerosleds is from the amazing website of V Chobitok; who I have been unable to contact to ask permission. (Mr Chobitok, if you see this please contact me) See: Aerosleds Last accessed May 2013.

I'm afraid the Chobitok site is entirely in Russian. The five lines at the top with black bullet points are links leading to detailed descriptions of various models of aerosled, complete with mechanical drawings. Not to be missed.

Research on this machine is at an early stage (not helped by the language barrier) but this is apparently a post office delivery aerosled, called "The North".

Left: Russian post office delivery vehicle

This is obviously a saloon car converted by adding a radial aero engine inside a cowling, faired into the roof of the car.

Left: Russian post office delivery vehicle

Left: Russian post office delivery vehicle

For obvious climatic reasons much of the information on prop-sleighs comes from Russia.

Many pictures of the Soviet Post Office delivery vehicle shown above, apparently called "The North":

More photos of "The North", including one that seems to have been converted back to wheels:

A small prototype built by a former IMZ-Ural engineer. It can run on either floats for water or skis for snow:

A site for samodel'nie (literally self-made) homemade airsleds, including some mechanical drawings:

Be aware that these are all Russian sites and the text is exclusively in Russian. However Google Translate deals with it very well.


The Museum of RetroTech has many other propellor-driven exhibits:

There is the propellor-driven motorcycle

And of course the propellor-driven car

And the Museum Governing Committee are planning a gallery on propellor locomotives. You heard it here first.

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