Born: 1 June 1907, Earlsdon, Coventry
Occupation: RAF Engineer Officer
Awards: KBE (1948), CBE (1944), CB (1947), Louis E. Levy Medal (1956), Order of Merit (1986), Fellow of the Royal Society (1986), Honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society (1986), Commander of the Legion of Merit (1946)
Died: 9 August 1996, Columbia, Maryland
The Jet Engine
Towards the end of the Second World War technology had transformed the way in which both sides fought the conflict. New innovations were making previous weapons systems obsolete and one of the most important was the jet engine.
Developed concurrently on both sides, the jet engine revolutionised the way in which aerial combat was fought. Had the Germans developed their engines sooner, it could easily have turned the tide of the war in the air. But fate transpired to allow the Allies to steal a march in its development. One of the leading lights in the race to create jet engines was a Royal Air Force officer by the name of Frank Whittle.
The light was fading and the wind had become blustery late on 15 May 1941, as the experimental Gloster E28/39 made its maiden flight. This aircraft was the first to be powered by the Whittle W1 jet engine, and its flight ended Frank Whittle’s 15 years of frustration with a marvellous achievement that truly changed the world.
Frank Whittle was self-educated, but what he lacked in formal education he made up for with a brilliantly innovative mind. His desire had been to serve in the RAF as a Trade Apprentice, and he was rejected three times before finally being accepted.
[quote]A nation’s ability to fight a modern war is as good as its technological ability.[/quote]
During his early career he excelled. His end-of-course thesis used the basic equation for flight and expanded upon it, stating that aircraft needed to fly higher and faster than contemporary designs and that they required a new form of propulsion to achieve that. He initially proposed rockets to replace propellers, but then dismissed this idea as too inefficient and dangerous.
The young engineer remained baffled until 1929, when he had a flash of inspiration: the jet engine. He did away with the propeller entirely and proposed using the force of a jet to propel the aircraft forward. The powers that be, including Dr A A Griffith of the Air Ministry, were unimpressed by this maverick upstart. Whittle protested that a jet would be lighter, less complicated, and more powerful – but all to no avail. Undaunted by this rejection, Whittle, aged just 22, patented his jet engine in early 1930.
Unfortunately for Frank Whittle, his flash of brilliance had occurred during the Great Depression and no-one was willing to invest in seemingly outrageous and untested projects. Whittle returned to his RAF career as a test pilot and instructor, and for five years his jet engine lay dormant. But in 1935, along with two former RAF colleagues, he found the necessary funding and a small company – Power Jets – was created, with Whittle holding a 49% share.
The following year Whittle had British steam-turbine manufacturer Thomson-Houston build the prototype engine, named WU. On 12 April 1936 the jet was successfully run for the first time. Development of the WU continued as funds allowed, but the engine itself did not help matters by frequently running out of control. In light of this tendency, trials work was moved from Rugby to the Ladywood factory at Lutterworth in Leicestershire.
With war clouds looming across Europe, the Air Ministry finally invested just enough cash to keep the project afloat. The engine trials were conducted at Cranfield, and the Whittle Supercharger Type W1 was developed in partnership with Rover and Rolls-Royce.
[quote]The responsibility that rests on my shoulders is very heavy indeed.[/quote]
With Government finance also came the burdens of adhering to the Official Secrets Act. Whittle’s health suffered due to his determination to make the engine a success. He suffered heart palpitations and eczema as well as losing a substantial amount of weight. At one point, his weight had gone down to just nine stone. Furthermore, he frequently sniffed Benzedrine and took tranquilisers and sleeping tablets. His mental health also suffered and colleagues were heard remarking about Whittle’s ‘explosive’ temper.
When the W1 was fitted into the Gloster E28/39, the authorities finally realised what Whittle had developed and moved with some alacrity to secure the technology. Rolls-Royce was instructed to take over the manufacture and within months the Gloster Meteor, Britain’s first operational jet fighter, made its maiden flight on 12 June 1943.
In mid 1942 Whittle was sent to Boston, Massachusetts, to assist the Americans in the development of their jet-engine program at General Electric. A development of the basic W-2B design was installed in the Bell XP-59A Airacomet.
[quote]I have a good crowd around me. They are all working like slaves, so much so that there is a risk of mistakes through physical and mental fatigue.[/quote]
In October 1943 Power Jets was nationalised by the Churchill Government after Whittle had agreed to surrender his shares in the company. The Government paid £135,500 and each of the directors received £46,800 for their remaining stock. Being a serving RAF officer, Frank Whittle received nothing, later improved to just £10,000. In May 1948, however, he received an award of £100,000 from the Royal Commission on Awards to inventors, for his work on jet engines.
Frank Whittle’s jet-engine designs were then, shamefully, sold to the Americans, who developed the technology and never paid Frank Whittle the money he was rightfully owed. After leaving the RAF on medical grounds on 26 August 1948, he worked for BOAC, Shell, and Bristol Aero Engines before moving to the United States. There, in 1977, he took up the position of NAVAIR Research Professor at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.
By the time of his death from lung cancer on 9 August 1996 at his home in Columbia, Maryland, Sir Frank Whittle had been recognised as the father of the jet engine and his legacy is seen in military and civilian aircraft.
This article appeared in issue 54 of Military History Monthly.