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Retired Woodbridge resident helped build first working helicopter in U.S.

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Posted: Thursday, June 27, 2002 10:00 pm

All practical theories of flight and engineering suggested it couldn’t fly, but it does.

Tony Paradiso, of Woodbridge, began his career with that paradox.

Paradiso, 81, was instrumental in the development of a machine capable of vertical flight and unprecedented maneuverability: The helicopter.

Despite the odds against the rotor-powered, insect-shaped aircraft ever working, a group of engineers working with a Russian immigrant in Stratford, Conn., persevered.

As a starting engineer with the Sikorsky company in 1939, Paradiso worked side by side with pioneering designer Igor Sikorsky as he developed the plans for the first working helicopter built in the United States.

Paradiso grew up and attended high school in Massachusetts. Math and science intrigued him, and he was obsessed with speed.

“I got stung by the bug when I was 5 years old,” he said.

As a boy, he built models and was fascinated by machines that could move faster than anything on earth at that time. Top speed for an airplane in the late 1930s was around 100 miles per hour, and Paradiso wanted in on the action. He reasoned that he could attend a four-year college, puffing out his credits with humanities classes, or he could go straight to technical school and get out on the “battle line” two years sooner.

Because California was the center of the aeronautical universe at that time, that was where Paradiso wanted to go. The day after he graduated from high school, he traveled to Pomona and enrolled in Aero Industries Technical Institute, which later became Northridge Institute, where he earned his engineering degree in two years and was able to jump straight in to the working world.

Starting wage for a new engineer was 50 cents an hour, and gas was eight gallons for $1, Paradiso said. He could hardly wait.

He married a Woodbridge girl, Patricia Handel, and they had three children, who all now live in Southern California.

In 1986, the couple returned to Woodbridge and purchased the Handel home from the family estate. Patricia Paradiso died in 1990.

Paradiso is proud of the post-Victorian home which edges the Woodbridge golf course.

Built in 1917 entirely of redwood, it benefits from the natural air conditioner of Delta breeze pulling lawn sprinkler mist over the shaded porch.

Stepping over his housemate, a gray tabby cat named Bingo, Paradiso invites a visitor into his den, which is covered from floor to ceiling with framed photos and memorabilia from his days in aviation engineering. There are autographed photos of legendary pilot Gen. Jimmy Doolitle and World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacher, and several of Sikorsky, engaged in various stages of flight in his machines.

Paradiso’s pressed white shirt is set off by a short dark tie, and his black shoes match his crisply creased slacks which are as neat as his trimmed mustache. He sits on the edge of his easy chair, offering the sofa to his guest and pops a video into the player.

He starts the 11-minute long tape, which features his own narration, and shows off a tiny, museum-quality engineer’s model of the first practical working helicopter, the Sikorsky VS-300 that he helped design and build. The model was of such quality that, in 1994 when it was completed, the Smithsonian Institute vied for possession, but Paradiso was adamant that it should go to the American Helicopter Society, which he helped found in 1942.

The model, which was valued at more than $20,000, now resides in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

Igor Sikorsky was eager to demonstrate the usefulness of his vertical flying machine and had played with some applications for lowering rescue workers to locations where planes could not land, Paradiso said.

They started with a rope, and then a rope ladder which could lower a rescue worker into a danger zone. That solved half the problem, but there was no way to haul victims or property back up.

That was when Paradiso came up with the notion of combining a motor with a sling apparatus, and the first helicopter power hoist was born.

To date, more than a million lives have been saved by helicopters, and many of those were brought on board by the hoist Paradiso devised.

Today, he recalls his eight years with Sikorsky as exciting and productive, and expressed admiration for his boss’s accomplishments.

“(Sikorsky) was of the school where you designed, built and flew your own machines,” Paradiso said. “That had the effect of separating the good from the bad designers.”

Paradiso later went to work for Douglas Aircraft, and retired after 39 years as an advanced design engineer.

While with Douglas, he worked on ultra-secret government projects, and had a hand in designing the refueling system on the KC10 A aerial tanker, which made much longer flights possible for military aircraft.

Of all his mementos, Paradiso said he is most proud of his medallion bestowed by the helicopter society, which now boasts more than 7,000 members worldwide.

When the society met for its annual convention in Montreal, Canada, Paradiso was invited as a special guest for the “Day with the Pioneers” session. Paradiso’s contributions to the industry were historic, said Ray Prouty, a consulting engineer and coordinator of the event for the society.

“He designed the great-grandfather of all helicopter hoists,” said Prouty, from his Westlake Village home.

Never satisfied with sitting still, Paradiso busies himself with continuing his own education.

He travels to engineering society meetings in Los Angeles each September to keep abreast of new technology, and acts as a mentor and lecturer for student engineers at the University of California, Davis. He served as a reading tutor for elementary students at Heritage School for nine years.

When he addresses the young engineers, he imagines they expect to see him appear in goggles and a leather helmet, but, he explains, he talks to them about projects they may not have dreamed of.

He loves to share stories of his work on early projects, including those he said once seemed like science fiction, but may be built within 25 years.

The supersonic transport could whisk passengers from New York to Tokyo in two hours, traveling at 150,000 feet.

“But they still haven’t figured out that sonic boom problem,” he said.

He contributed to designs for the original space shuttle, and worked up plans for the interior of Air Force One, but the contract was won by a rival aircraft company.

Paradiso shuffles his files, and scoots past Bingo to start the notes for his newest mission addressing the next generation of engineers.

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