Alexander de Seversky and The Renaissance of American Airpower

Alexander de Seversky in cockpit before record flight to Havana, Cuba, Dec. 1937.
Alexander de Seversky in cockpit before record flight to Havana, Cuba, Dec. 1937.

“I discovered early that the hardest thing to overcome is not a physical disability, but the mental condition which it induces. The world, I found, has a way of taking a man pretty much at his own rating.” 

Alexander de Seversky

When thinking of the names of pioneering innovators who made their mark on history through their intellect, vision, or a brilliant invention, the names Edison, Bell, and Curie may come to mind. Of lesser notoriety, but no less a visionary, was Russian emigre Alexander P. de Seversky, a man of steadfast determination and foresight who in his lifetime became a legendary figure in the world of civil and military aviation. A tireless advocate for American airpower, de Seversky bestowed upon his adopted country some of the world’s most outstanding aircraft designs and concepts to substantially advance the technology of aviation in the 20th Century.

Born to an aristocratic family in Tiffis, Russia in 1894, Alexander Procofieff de Seversky entered military school at the age of ten. His father, Nicholas, was a Russian aviator who taught his son how to fly and by age 14, Alexander entered the Imperial Russian Naval Academy graduating in 1914 with a degree in aeronautical engineering. After completing his graduate studies, de Seversky was selected for duty as a military aviator and was assigned to a unit in the Baltic Fleet. At the onset of the First World War, he was commissioned a lieutenant and on his first combat mission de Seversky was shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire before dropping his bomb load. With the crash of his airplane, the bomb load exploded and seriously wounded him causing the loss of his right leg. After doctors amputated his wounded limb below the knee, Alexander was fitted with a prosthesis and deemed unfit to return to combat duty. But de Seversky later managed to persuade his superiors to let him do battle once again using his artificial leg and in the years to follow he became an ace downing thirteen German aircraft, making him a national hero. After the Bolsheviks gained power in 1917, Alexander immigrated to the United States in order to avoid persecution or death.

Alexander de Seversky, wife Evelyn and do 'Vodka', SEV 3 in background c.1933
Alexander de Seversky, wife Evelyn and do ‘Vodka’, SEV 3 in background c.1933

In 1918, de Seversky was sent as a member of the Russian Naval Mission to the USA, to study aircraft design whereupon he was appointed aeronautical engineer and test pilot. By 1921, Alexander became an advisor to General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell during the demonstration of an airplane sinking a battleship to illustrate the effectiveness of airpower. Two years later he founded the Seversky Aero Corp., making aircraft parts and instruments and during this time he met New Orleans socialite, Evelyn Olliphant who became his wife in 1925 and who later a noted pilot in her own right.

After becoming a U.S. citizen in 1927, de Seversky was commissioned a Major in the Army Air Corps. He was appointed a consulting engineer to the War Department by the US Secretary of War and in the span of the next decade he applied for over 350 U.S. Patents including an inflight refueling system and a gyroscopically-stabilized automatic bombsight. Working with Elmer Sperry, he laid the base for all gyro stabilized instruments making the automatic pilot possible. 

Unfortunately, the Seversky Aero Corp. was not to survive the stock market crash of 1929 and the company folded. This did not deter the indominable de Seversky who in 1931, with a flair for self- promotion and the help of several investors, resurrected his corporation and founded the Seversky Aircraft Corp., Farmingdale, Long Island where he was company president and chief test pilot. Having a great eye for talent he recruited fellow countryman, Alexander Kartveli as his chief engineer and together they combined forces to develop the first turbo supercharger combined with an air-cooled engine in a fighter. A handful more of de Seversky’s ceaseless accomplishments included his advanced design amphibian in which he flew and set world speed records from 1933 to 1935, the first low wing monoplane basic trainer for the Army Air Corps and an all metal monoplane that set speed records in the 1933-1939 National Air Races and a trans-continental record in 1938, to name a few.

In his leisure time, de Seversky liked to dance, ice skate, swim, play the piano and was known to be a snappy dresser. Having established a permanent residency on Ashroken Beach on Long Island, his wife Evelyn, a skilled pilot herself, helped her husband with his business and test-flew his various models of aircraft until a heart condition ultimately grounded her.

Mr. & Mrs. de Seversky in SEV 3 cockpit 1933.

In 1937, one of the most influential aircraft designs to come from de Seversky and his design team was the introduction of the P-35, the first single-seat fighter to feature all-metal construction, retractable landing gear, and an enclosed cockpit and the forerunner of the legendary Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, one of the most formidable fighters of World War II. Despite this, as much of a brilliant visionary of aircraft design and pilot that de Seversky was, his skills as a corporate manager were not so much and he was forced out of his own company which was then reorganized as the Republic Aviation Corporation in 1939. 

After the loss of his company, de Seversky turned to writing and lecturing, becoming the foremost expert on the tactics of aerial warfare and in 1939 he was presented the Harmon Trophy by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his outstanding achievements in the field of aeronautics.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, one of de Seversky’s most visible achievements was the 1942 publication of his book, “Victory Through Air Power’ which became a best seller and later a film after it caught the attention of Walt Disney, who in agreement with de Seversky wanted to awaken the allies to the necessity of strategic air power in combating the advances of the German Luftwaffe and the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force during the Second World War. For his efforts and advocation of air power, de Seversky received the Medal of Merit from President Harry Truman in 1945 and a second Harmon Trophy in 1947. Many awards, medals and honors were to follow.

In 1946, Alexander was witness to the atomic test site at Bikini Islands and by 1952 he formed the Seversky Electronatom Corp. in Long Island City. The products of this company supported the defense of the United States against a nuclear attack and more specifically the extraction of radioactive particles from the air. This research led to the discovery of the Ionocraft, a heavier-than-air vehicle that gained its lift and propulsion from ionic emissions. In his later years, Major de Seversky dedicated himself toward ecological concerns with his invention of the electrostatic precipitator to extract impurities from the air and industrial emissions.

By the 1950s de Seversky helped found the NY Institute of Technology in Old Westbury and Manhattan of which he was a trustee. The Institute later acquired a Gold Coast mansion originally built by Alfred du Pont in Old Westbury, Long Island where the main campus is and in 1972 it was renamed ‘The de Seversky Center’ in honor of Alexander. Following his long and fruitful career in aviation and the development of American airpower, Alexander de Seversky died on August 24, 1974 in New York at the age of 80 and is buried alongside his wife Evelyn Olliphant de Seversky at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Julia Lauria-Blum
Julia Lauria-Blum earned her BA degree in the Visual Arts at SUNY New Paltz. After a brief career in the hospitality industry she began research on women pioneers in aviation. In 2001 she curated the WASP exhibit at the American Airpower Museum (AAM) and was a consultant on the History Channel documentary, Women Combat Pilots, The Right Stuff and later curated the Ninety-Nines Organization of Women Pilots exhibit and ‘Women Who Brought the War Home, Women War Correspondents, WWII’ at the AAM.

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