Frank Whittle

Shy Boy Becomes Daredevil Test Pilot

Whittle was born in the City of Coventry on 1st June 1907 and after attending a local school, he went on to higher education at Leamington College.  As a child, Whittle spent hours in the library reading about astronomy, physiology and engineering. His first attempts to join the RAF failed as a result of his diminutive stature, but on his third attempt he was accepted as an apprentice in September 1923 at sixteen years of age.

Recommended for an Officer Cadetship he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in 1928 and was posted to No. 111 Fighter Squadron. While still a cadet he wrote a thesis contending that planes would need to fly at high altitudes, where air resistance is much lower, in order to achieve long ranges and high speeds. During 1929 while at Central Flying School he conceived the idea of using the Gas Turbine as a means of power for producing jet thrust but the Air Ministry failed to take any action in support of the project. By 1930 he applied for a patent on the Turbo-jet engine, as well as performing ‘crazy flying’ at the RAF Pageant, Hendon. During 1931/32 Whittle was a Floatplane and Catapult Test Pilot and subsequently posted to School of Engineering, Henlow. In 1935 he was unable to renew his patent because of financial problems and, since the Air Ministry were not interested, his patent details were published worldwide.

A Testing Time For Frank Whittle

In 1936 Whittle secured financial backing and, with approval from the Air Ministry, formed Power Jets Ltd. in Lutterworth and started to develop the Turbo-jet engine. While working on his project he gained First Class Honours at Cambridge University. He was then posted to the Special Duties List so that he could continue his work.

He also patented the Turbo-fan and other enhancements to his original idea. Test runs were made in April 1937, at the BTH works in Rugby. This was the world’s first Turbo-jet unit and it was called the W.U. The Government immediately realised the potential of the jet engine and signed a contract for further development in 1939.

The Jet Engine Was Born

By April 1941 the new engine, now designated the W1, was ready for flight testing. The first flight of an allied Turbo-jet, the Gloster E28/39, was made on 15th May 1941 at Cranwell. By October the Americans had heard of the project and asked for the details and an engine. A Power Jets team and a W1X engine were flown to Washington to enable General Electric to examine it and begin construction. The Americans developed the idea and their Bell XP-59A Airacomet was airborne on 2nd October 1942. Prior to this the Rover Company in the UK had been given the secrets of the Whittle Engine by the Air Ministry in 1940, in order to prepare for mass production of the W2 Engine for the Gloster Meteor. On their failure to do so, this work was handed over by the Ministry to Rolls Royce in 1943, who successfully completed the task allotted to them. By 1944 Britain had at last a jet fighter with the Rolls Royce Welland engines designed by Frank Whittle. Power Jets started to develop the W2/700 and the final Engine built was fitted with Afterburning/Reheat which was to be used on the Miles 52 Supersonic Aircraft Experimental Project.

In 1946 Frank Whittle, by then an Air Commodore, resigned from Power Jets after it was nationalised and merged with the Gas Turbine section of the RAE at Farnborough to become the National Gas Turbine Establishment. Whittle retired from the RAF in 1948 and was knighted by King George V in the same year. He became a consultant and technical advisor to aviation companies in the 1950’s. Later he went to work in the USA and following his marriage to an American wife he moved his home to the USA in 1976. He was awarded the Order of Merit by Her Majesty the Queen in 1986. Although not always published he continued to write articles, showing his foresight, even addressing environmental issues and ‘The Greenhouse Effect’ as early as the 1970’s. Innovative and a visionary, Whittle forecast the development of supersonic air travel, not just for military purposes but as scheduled civil air transport.