Woodbridge resident Tony Paradiso was addicted after his first flight.
He was seven years old in 1928 and had walked three miles from his home in Massachusetts to Mendon airport.
Paradiso knew a bus mechanic who liked to work on planes, and the man asked, “Would you like to go for a ride, kid?” A pilot was going up for a test flight because the mechanic had just overhauled the engine.
“When I think back on it, I wouldn’t have wanted my child to go up like that because it was a test flight for the engine,” Paradiso said. “The engine could have quit or burned up.”
The flight lasted about five minutes in an open cockpit. In those moments, Paradiso knew he wanted a lifelong career in aviation.
“When I was growing up there were no helicopters, jets or missiles. It was my destiny to work on the first helicopter,” he said.
During his 47 years in aerospace engineering, Paradiso witnessed countless historical flights. He was part of a team of 25 engineers who built the Sikorsky VS-300A helicopter in 1941 — the first practical helicopter in the United States.
The achievement he is most proud of is being one of the first to design the rescue hoist, allowing stretchers and rope ladders to be lowered. Since Sikorsky added it to helicopters, it has saved millions of lives, Paradiso said.
Even at the age of 91, Paradiso is still active in aviation. In May, he attended the 68th American Helicopter Society forum where he was the keynote speaker, and discussed his career and the formation of the society.
“I was a workaholic, but I always told my kids, ‘I’ve never worked a day in my life because it was work I enjoyed,’” he said.
Preparing for flight
When Paradiso was born in 1921 in Massachusetts, bread prices were 5 cents, the price of a new Ford was $415, and it was less than two decades since the historic Wright Brothers flight.
His father worked in a factory manufacturing shoes. After work, his dad would craft shoes for the family in the attic next to Paradiso who was building 10 cent model airplanes made out of balsa wood, glue and tissue. He would paint them, imagining the models flying through the air as full scale planes.
Throughout high school, he read aviation trade journals and decided to apply for the Aero Industries Technical Institute in Glendale. At the time, Southern California was the heart aviation.
He had never been farther than 35 miles away from home when he boarded a train to travel across the country in three and a half days.
The curriculum focused solely on courses applicable to a career in airplane design, and classes were six days a week — year-round.
Coming out of school in 1939, Paradiso was immediately hired at Douglas Aircraft Company at 50 cents an hour as a design engineer.
“It was right before the war, and there was a great need for engineers,” Paradiso said.
He started to learn how to fly from a test pilot and engineer who worked for Douglas. During their fourth hour of flying, his instructor buckled over and told Paradiso he would have to land the plane because he was sick. Even though Paradiso had practiced landing before, this was the first time he did it on his own.
Later that afternoon, the instructor was in surgery to remove his appendix.
“There was no time to think. I just had to act instinctively,” Paradiso said.
While working in California, Paradiso found out that Igor Sikorsky was working on something that had never been accomplished — an operational helicopter.
“I said, ‘I’d like to get on the ground floor,” he said.
His mentor, Foster Gruber, a preliminary design engineer, encouraged him to go for it, and shortly after he was working for Sikorsky Aircraft in 1941.
“Gruber always said, ‘Be prepared. Your chance will come,’” Paradiso said. “I watched others that started at the same time get left behind, but I kept progressing because I took chances.”
At his Woodbridge home with a wraparound front porch and airy rooms, Paradiso wears a necktie adorned with hummingbirds, the official symbol for the helicopter society. In his den, filled with helicopter memorabilia, he points to different photos, sharing glimpses of his career.
His favorite time was joining 25 other engineers to work on a helicopter design with Sikorsky in Stratford, Connecticut.
“Since we were just a small group, it was not unusual for Mr. Sikorsky to stop by and look at the details,” he said.
Paradiso witnessed the first endurance flight for a helicopter in 1941, which was flown by Sikorsky for one hour and 26 minutes.
In 1943, Paradiso and several other engineers wanted to share their helicopter knowledge with others, and so he drafted the constitution for the American Helicopter Society.
Michael Hirschberg, current president of the now international society, said Paradiso is the only remaining founding member and has been honored at the 40th, 50th and 60th anniversary.
“It was an honor to meet him and honor him for the foresight that these young kids in their 20s had to start a society by engineers, for engineers and of engineers,” he said.
Out of all his designs, he is most proud of being one of the first to work on a power hoist in the mid-1940s that has since been used for countless rescue missions.
“You could not only go down, but you could also send a rope, a rope ladder or a hoist,” Paradiso said. “It rescued pilots that were shot down. It is one of the biggest uses the helicopter is known for.”
In 1945, he met his wife, Pat, while living in California, and they had three children. For the rest of his career, Paradiso worked stints with both companies; eight years at Sikorsky and 38 years at Douglas.
While at Douglas, he was an advance design engineer, and worked with the U.S. Navy Missile Test Center. He also flew in Douglas’ first jet fighter and was involved in the launch of the first air-to-air, radar-guided missiles. He worked on a Hubble telescope transporter and an Air Force One replacement.
He described the time at both companies as fast-paced with engineers being able to create in several months what takes years, even decades, now.
“In those days, things were moving so fast, we didn’t have meetings or write reports. We just did trial-and-error. Now it takes more time,” he said.
Retiring to Woodbridge
After almost five decades in the field, Paradiso retired in 1986 to the Woodbridge home where he currently lives.
His mother-in-law, Isabel Handel, there raising Arabian show horses. Handel won 120 trophies and 1,155 first, second and third place ribbons in her riding career.
After he retired, he spent nine years tutoring elementary school students on how to read. His wife died in March 1990, and he still visits her daily at Cherokee Memorial Cemetery, placing fresh flowers on her grave.
To chronicle his career for his children, he wrote a memoir about both his work and his personal life, although he said there are parts he definitely left out because they were top secret.
For example, there were several times he was asked to imagine the future 25 years down the road, but he never met the other engineers or scientists involved, and never heard the end results. At times, he couldn’t even talk to his superiors about what he was working on.
He now spends his days reading mainly autobiographies — the most recent being Steve Jobs’ — and staying up-to-date on the profession he loves so much by reading trade journals.
When the American Helicopter Society asked him to speak at the annual conference in May, he did not hesitate to get on a plane and fly to Fort Worth, Texas.
“I received a standing ovation, and I thought that was unusual,” he said.
Then, in front of the CEOs of major helicopters companies, leaders in government, college professors and students, Paradiso received an award honoring his lifelong passion. Hirschberg presented him with a 2-inch coin with the society’s logo and an etching of Leonardo da Vinci’s aerial screw, which is the first known concept drawing of a helicopter.
“(Paradiso) only spent eight years in the helicopter business, but he remained a member of the American Helicopter Society for its entire 69 years in existence,” Hirschberg said. “We were all there because of what he and his colleagues did 70 years before.”
Even though he is proud of his work, Paradiso said he takes after the philosophy of Sikorsky, who said there were hundreds of people who dreamed of the helicopter before it was created.
“He always said, there’s nothing new under the sun. We just took the best ideas and put them together into something practical,” he said.