Russian aviation pioneer and World War I fighter ace, Alexander P. de Seversky was born in Tbilisi, Georgia to the aristocracy in 1894. His father was interested in aviation, was one of the first Russian aviators to own his own plane, and taught young Alexander how to fly. By the time Seversky entered the Imperial Russian Naval Academy at the age of 14, he was already a competent pilot. He graduated from the academy in 1914 with an engineering degree and was serving aboard a destroyer in the Baltic Fleet when World War I began.
Seversky was immediately reassigned to the Military School of Aeronautics at Sevastopol and after completing a postgraduate course there, was assigned in the summer of 1915 to an air unit in Riga. His first combat mission ended badly; he attacked a German destroyer, but was shot down before he could drop his bombs. Worse yet, the crash detonated his bombs, killing his observer and badly wounding Seversky. The doctors amputated the injured leg below the knee, fitted him with a prosthesis, and disqualified him from flight status. Seversky protested to no avail, and attempted to prove he could still fly by showing up unannounced at an air show. He put on a spirited performance, but was arrested immediately following the show. He was saved from punishment by the Tsar's personal intervention, and returned to combat in July 1916, shooting down his first German three days after reporting for duty. In October of that year, he was shot down behind enemy lines but managed to escape to the Russian lines. Seversky was promoted to command of the Second Naval Fighter Squadron in February 1917 but was injured in a ground accident and reassigned to duty in Moscow as Chief of Pursuit Aviation. His short time in the air was a busy one; he racked up 57 missions and six verified kills, making him the leading Russian naval ace; if he is also credited with seven claimed (unverified) kills, he would be the third-ranked Russian ace. Seversky was decorated with the Order of St. George, 4th class; Order of St. Vladimir, 4th Class; Order of St. Stanislaus, 2nd and 3rd Class; and the Order of St. Anne, 2nd, 3rd and 4th class.
He was stationed at St. Petersburg when the Bolshevik Revolution erupted, and remained in uniform at the request of the Baltic Fleet's commander. In March of 1918, he was assigned to Washington, D.C. as the assistant naval attache to the Russian Naval Aviation Mission, and departed via Siberia. Seversky chose to stay in the United States instead of returning to a Russia in the throes of civil war, and for a time operated a restaurant in New York. He offered his services to General Kenly of the Signal Corps as a pilot, but instead was sent to the Buffalo District as a consulting engineer and test pilot. Seversky became an assistant to Billy Mitchell after the Armistice, aiding him in his campaign to prove that Air Corps bombers could sink battleships, and influencing Mitchell's tactics during the historic 1921 test. Seversky was commissioned as a Major in the Army Reserve in 1923, and became a naturalized citizen in 1927.
Seversky was active on the engineering front during these years, receiving the first patent for air-to-air refueling in 1921 and filing over 350 other patent claims, one of which was for the first gyro-stabilized bombsight, which he had developed with the Sperry Gyroscope company in 1923.
He went into business that year, using $50,000 from the sale of the gyroscopic bombsight to found the Seversky Aero Company. The company failed in 1929, unable to survive the stock market crash, but was reformed in 1931 as the Seversky Aviation Company with his patents as the primary assets. Here Seversky would emphasize research and development instead of mere manufacturing of other peoples' designs, with a staff of Georgian and Russian engineers that he had rescued from Stalin's purges. Seversky's first product was an all-metal monoplane multi-seat amphibian, the SEV-3. This plane would go on to set numerous speed records at the National Air Races from 1933-1939, often with Seversky, the company's best salesman, at the controls. The SEV-3 would also set a world speed record (235 mph) for amphibious aircraft in 1935, and a transcontinental speed record in 1938. The basic SEV-3 would go into service with the Army Air Corps as the BT-8 trainer. The SEV-3 was viewed as a template design easily adapted to several different roles, one of which was the single-seat, retractable landing gear SEV-S2 racer (virtually identical to the P-35 being tested by the Air Corps that year) which dominated the last three Bendix Trophy races from 1937-1939, starting with an epic 257 mph win by Frank Fuller.
The P-35 is the ancestor of the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter, which would become famous in World War II for its toughness in combat. It was notable for being the first Air Corps pursuit plane with a fully enclosed cockpit and retractable landing gear, and an improved version with a larger engine was known as the XP-41, which in turn served as the test bed for the P-43 Lancer. The P-43 was equipped with a turbocharged engine that made it an outstanding high-altitude interceptor, and saw action with the Nationalist Chinese despite its rapid obsolescence.
Unfortunately, Seversky was not as good at running a business as he was at being a great engineer and pitchman; he had also alienated the War Department by secretly negotiating to sell twenty amphibious fighters to the Japanese. This sale caused the Air Corps to cut its order of P-35s back to the initial batch of 76, and led to the company's backers insisting on a cut to Seversky's budget and a transfer of power to the managing director, Walter Kellett in September 1938. The Board of Directors took further action while Seversky was in Europe on a sales tour in the winter of 1938-39, reorganizing and renaming the company as Republic Aviation and replacing Seversky as its president with Kellett. Legal action proved fruitless, and Republic's board of directors eventually voted him out of the company completely.
Seversky went on to write the best-selling Victory Through Air Power in 1942, which advocated strategic bombing and curiously enough was made into a propaganda film the following year by Walt Disney, featuring live action commentary by Seversky and Mitchell. The book and film were very influential in influencing public opinion, despite official disapproval by the Navy and War Departments and the film's poor showing at the box office. Seversky continued to lecture and write about aviation and strategic bombing after the war, producing two more books, Air Power: Key to Survival in 1950 and America: Too Young To Die! in 1961. He was a founder and trustee of the New York Institute of Technology, which acquired a mansion (originally built by Alfred DuPont) in 1972. The mansion was renamed the DeSeversky Center in his honor and is a popular venue for weddings.
He was awarded the Harmon Trophy in 1939 for advances in aviation, the Medal of Merit from President Truman in 1945 for his work on air power, and the Exceptional Service Medal in 1969 for his service as a special consultant to the Air Force Chiefs of Staff. Seversky was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1970, and died in New York's Memorial Hospital in August 1974.