Early years

Frank Whittle was born the eldest child of Moses and Sarah Whittle in Newcombe Road, Coventry, on 1st June 1907. His father, brought up in the shadow of poverty, had left school aged 11 to work in his local Lancashire cotton mill, eventually becoming a skilled and inventive mechanical engineer and, after moving south, owning a small engineering company.  Young Frank attended the local council schools before winning a scholarship to a secondary school, which later became the Leamington College for Boys. By helping his father in his workshop, he quickly developed a practical engineering knowledge.

  1. Frank Whittle aged 4
  2. Leamington College for Boys
At school, his teachers thought that he was somewhat lazy, unaware that he spent a considerable amount of his time studying in the local library where his enthusiasm for flying was born. One of his pastimes now was making model planes and, determined to join the RAF, was disappointed to be turned down as a boy entrant (Apprentice) because he was found to be small for his age and failed to meet the required standard. Within 6 months, natural growth and a rigorous fitness regime had added 3 inches to his height and chest measurement and he made another attempt. He was again turned down. It transpired that, once rejected – always rejected. And there was no means of appeal. He therefore decided to be a little economical with the truth and go through the application system once again from scratch as if trying for the first time. This time round, he was accepted. He had learnt not to give up – something that would prove useful in later life. In 1923, now aged 16, he reported to Cranwell to begin his apprenticeship.

In 1926, due to outstanding qualities as an apprentice, he was awarded a cadetship at the RAF College (also at Cranwell) to train as an officer and pilot. Here he developed into something of a daredevil flyer and was, amongst other things, punished for hedge-hopping. However, before graduating he had written a thesis: “Future Developments in Aircraft Design”. In this, he considered atmospheric characteristics, the advantage of less dense air for high-speed flight and alternative means to power aeroplanes. But, most importantly, he proved by calculation that the turbine had the potential to be a prime mover for aero-propulsion. His 2-year course as a Flight Cadet ended in 1928 and he passed out with distinction – also winning the coveted Abdy Gerrard Fellowes Memorial Prize for Aeronautical Sciences. Now elevated to the rank of Pilot Officer, he was posted for a tour with No. 111 Squadron flying the Siskin bi-plane fighter. Following this happy interlude, he moved to the Central Flying School (CFS) in 1929 to qualify as a flying instructor.

  1. 1929 proposal
  2. Frank Whittle, Pilot Officer
  3. Whittle demonstrates crazy flying during an RAF pageant at Hendon

During his spare time on the squadron and at CFS he gave much thought to the application of the internal combustion turbine as a means to drive the aeroplane propeller. As others had before him, he soon discovered that the levels of component efficiency in any suitable gas turbine engine would be dauntingly difficult to achieve. And then, as he would say in later life, “the penny dropped” and he perceived the possibility of using the high velocity/high mass flow exhaust to obtain propulsion by reaction. In doing so, he was dismissing the altitude limitations of the internal combustion engine and the speed limitations of the propeller. A practical form of turbojet was borne. An entirely new horizon for aeronautics was about to materialize.

Whittle worked on the business of the design of an engine with a potential thrust sufficient to propel a small aeroplane at very high speeds and at very high altitudes. He settled on an arrangement that incorporated a two-stage centrifugal compressor and a two-stage (Curtis) turbine. He estimated a compression ratio of 4:1 and a rate of combustion of liquid fuel of about 168 imperial gallons per hour with a temperature at the turbine inlet of 800º K.

He showed his idea to the station commandant, Group Captain Baldwin, who, perceiving strategic importance and a need for secrecy, sent him to be interviewed by the engine division at the Air Ministry. They in turn, arranged for him to meet Dr A A Griffith at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE). Griffith had started seriously considering gas turbines for propeller-driven aircraft as early as 1926. In a meeting of considerable consequence, Griffith rejected Whittle’s proposals and convinced the Ministry that the idea did not warrant any further attention. Unfortunately, Griffith had his own agenda. He would have known full well that he would be instructed to work on the turbojet should he admit any serious practicality. Despite this setback, Whittle went ahead and applied for a patent – granted in January 1930. However, as the President of the Air Council declared that there was no need for secrecy, it was published in 1931. Copies were purchased by, amongst others, the German Trade Commission in London. It was then circulated by technical journal to the German Air Ministry (RLM), aero-engine and airframe manufacturers and, most significantly, to the research establishments. Unfortunately the patent lapsed in January 1934 because Whittle could not afford the extension fee and the Air Ministry declined to help. In the mean time, the Germans added the turbojet to the list of alternative forms of aero-propulsion under scrutiny in their country: Rocket, pulse-jet, turbo-prop, ducted fan jet and ramjet

After a stint as a Flying Instructor at No. 2 Flying Training School, Whittle became a test pilot – involved with numerous tasks including the deliberate ditching in the sea of redundant aircraft, and catapult development for float-planes. All rather hazardous for a person who was unable to swim!

Further education

Every officer with a permanent commission was expected to take a specialist course, and as a result Whittle attended the Officers’ Engineering Course at RAF Henlow in 1932. He completed the studies in 18 months instead of the usual 2 years and obtained an aggregate of 98% in all subjects in the exams. This resulted in the RAF agreeing to send him to Cambridge University to take a Mechanical Sciences Tripos – a three-year course he proposed to complete in two. Halfway through his first year, in May 1935, he received a letter that would effectively rescue the turbojet idea from oblivion in the United Kingdom. It was from a close friend and former Cranwell cadet, Rolf Dudley Williams. In this letter, Williams proposed raising private capital to launch development of the engine. Together with another friend, Colingwood Tinling, and the firm of investment bankers O T Falk and Partners, a company was proposed – to be known as Power Jets Limited (PJ). This was formed in March 1936.
  1. Sir Frank Whittle, top row centre, began his theoretical work on jet propulsion while at RAF Cranwell. Photo Alastair Stewart
  2. In 2004 a blue plaque was erected at the entrance to Cambridge University Department of Engineering.
  3. Whittle, staff member, fellow apprentice

Some idea of the problems involved can be obtained by comparing his concept with the then state of the art. For instance, the compressor (now a single-stage double sided component) would need to shift over ten times as much air and deliver it at twice the pressure of current superchargers. The combustion chambers would require a combustion intensity many times that so far achieved in any boiler furnace and (now) a single-stage turbine of only 400 mm diameter would need to develop adequate horsepower to drive the compressor. Whilst finding solutions to these problems, promoting his ideas, seeking out suppliers and starting a development programme, he completed his Tripos and gained a First – all in 2 years. Permitted a further year at Cambridge for ‘post graduate research’, Whittle was subsequently placed on the Special Duties List to allow further continuity in the supervision of component manufacture and the building of his engine. Known as the WU, the engine first ran successfully at the British Thompson-Houston (BTH) works at Rugby on 12th. April 1937.

Move to Lutterworth

Unfortunately, in its early runs the engine showed a tendency to behave erratically. BTH then suggested that it might be safer if testing was continued up the road at a disused foundry they owned in Lutterworth. Power Jets moved into the Ladywood Works on the east side of the Leicester Road at the beginning of 1938; the workforce consisting of Whittle and an assistant, Victor Crompton, with some BTH fitters and test hands. Here, a modified version of the engine was tested but a failure resulted in major damage and the need for a further rebuild. This time round, the engine incorporated ten combustion chambers with reverse flow to facilitate a short rotor.
  1. Bust of Frank Whittle Memorial Gardens, Lutterworth
  2. Frank Whittle Memorial Roundabout, Lutterworth

The rebuilt engine was delivered in September 1938 just as the finances of Power Jets were at a critical condition. With engine performance well below theoretical estimates, Whittle began to show signs of the strain. And, to further complicate matters, he was warned that he might be returned to regular service as the military was then on a state of emergency. A skilful and highly experienced pilot, he would clearly have been well able to take his part in the oncoming fray. However, tests of the rebuilt engine were looking promising until fracturing occurred on the tips of the impeller blades. Replacement resulted in a further delay of almost 2 months with testing resumed on 17th June 1939. The engine was soon reaching speeds of 16,000 rpm – much higher than any achieved previously.

On 30th June, the day that Whittle’s appointment technically ended, Dr. Pye, the Director of Scientific Research, visited Power Jets and witnessed a test. He was so impressed that, previously a sceptic, he became totally converted. It was agreed that the Air Ministry would buy the engine and loan it back to PJ for further development and that it would become subject to the Official Secrets Act. The result of this was that outside investors could no longer be approached for funds. Until now, almost all the finance had been raised from private sources. Auspiciously, within weeks, a flight engine that became known as the W1, was ordered by the Ministry. The team began to grow as talented graduates and experienced technicians were recruited.
  1. Dr Pye, the Director of Scientific Research

The vulnerability of Power Jets

With the government at last behind the concept of the turbojet and financing development, design could now start on a new engine – the W2. This would have 1,600lbs thrust compared with 1,240lbs for the W1. However, problems soon arose over who would produce production quantities of the new engine. Whittle, who worried about the established aircraft engine manufacturers muscling in on Power Jets, had made informal contact with the directors of Rover Cars in January 1940 with a view to that company investing money in Power Jets in return for contracts.
This seems to have alerted Rover to the greater opportunities the new technology might present and they started their own negotiations with the Ministry. This resulted in a proposal for it (the Ministry) to give contracts for development engines directly to Rover, with Power Jets handing over all drawings and information and, theoretically, for the two companies to co-operate intimately. A further contract to build W2s was given to BTH. This was crippling for Power Jets. There was now no reason for Rover to invest in the company since the Air Ministry was giving it all it could want.
Through Whittle being a serving officer, operating in a company supported on government contracts, the Crown was able to exercise free use of patents. As a result, the Air Ministry considered the company had little left to offer in return for Ministry financing. That Power Jets had alone created a working and practical jet engine was increasingly being recognized. Its potential importance as the generic future power plant for aviation was obvious. Although the engine had yet to be translated into a service application, the team that had brought it thus far was anxious to take it to the next stage. However the extreme simplicity compared to supercharged piston engines of similar power, was the creation of a mere Squadron Leader with very little finance and in an ambiguous position. It is said that Whittle himself, as both an experienced and valuable serving officer and Power Jet’s principal driving force, suggested to the Ministry that everything might now be best passed on to the big boys with their immense in-house resources and production know-how. In practice, little of the latter would prove to be relevant in dealing with components of such demanding precision operating at the limits of material science.

Development problems

At this point, only Air Vice-Marshall Tedder, as Director-General of Research and Development, seemed to think that Power Jets still had a role to play. He ensured that it would be maintained as a research organization, although development contracts beyond those for the W2 would be placed directly with Rover and BTH. That there was still much to be learnt soon became apparent as work progressed. It became clear that significant changes were needed. As a result, the engine was re-designed and designated W2B. Relationships with BTH and Rover deteriorated as they made ill-advised changes to the design. Rover established their own development facility – determined to act independently. They spurned any collaboration with its inventor and his team, causing Whittle considerable stress.
  1. Air Vice-Marshall Tedder, Director-General of Research and Development
  2. A Rover-built W2B reverse flow engine
All this was taking place whilst the W1 was being built and tested and whilst, in the wider world, the Battle of Britain was being fought. Perhaps the Air Ministry’s support for a form of propulsion that had not yet taken to the air deserves acclaim. But soon, the W2B was experiencing problems with fuel vaporization and turbine blade cracking. Lutterworth residents recall the continuous sound of engine testing – claiming that sometimes, when it stopped in the night, the silence woke them up. And a hawthorn hedge in line with the efflux of the engine under test burst into flower in February!

During 1940 it had become obvious that Power Jets needed more office space. There had been an influx of boffins, many billeted on local households, with some working on the stairs near Whittle’s office. An old disused railway carriage parked on a nearby siding became the office of the combustion engineers. Rooms were rented at Brownsover Hall, a large historical house on the northern edge of Rugby. Whittle moved his office there, taking with him his senior design staff. But the main drawing office remained located in a large wooden hut at the Ladywood Works. In October 1941 the government ordered a greatly enlarged design and development facility some 7 miles further up the road at Whetstone, to open in 1943.

The Gloster E28/39

In April 1939, Whittle had visited the Gloster Aircraft Company where he had met their chief designer, George Carter. As a result, Carter had begun to explore possible aircraft configurations and by October was focusing on 2 alternative designs. With the promising performance of the engine, a specification was agreed later that year and issued in January 1940, with an order for 2 prototypes of the aircraft to follow. A test version of the W1 engine – designated W1X, was installed in the Gloster/Whittle E28/39 aircraft at Brockworth near Gloucester during the first days of April 1941. Using this engine, taxiing trials commenced on the 7th April. The following day, the aircraft was taken up to speeds that enabled the pilot to make some short hops into the air. On one occasion, Whittle also took control and assayed the performance for himself, but without parting company with the ground.
  1. The E28/39 shown over Cranwell on its first flight, artist Kenneth McDonough
  2. Wing Commander Whittle congratulates the test pilot Flt. Lt. Gerry Sayer after the first flight
These tests revealed a minimum thrust that would enable safe acceleration to flight-speed and the elevator (pitch control) forces in readiness for the first flight – planned to take place the following month. Early in May, the E28 was moved to Cranwell to take advantage of the greater security, the concrete runway and the flat surrounding countryside. The flight-worthy W1 had already achieved a rigorous 25-hour bench test and had been installed. It was now cleared for 10 hours of in-flight testing before any checks were considered necessary. The aircraft made its first historic flight on the evening of 15th May 1941, piloted by Gerry Sayer. It continued flying daily until the 10 hours were complete.

Although rated at 1,240lb, the W1 was de-rated at 860lb for the first few flights as a means to moderate the temperature at the turbine.
Nearly two years earlier and unknown to the Allies, the work of a young German academic and engineer Hans von Ohain, working with the support of Dr Ernst Heinkel and his company, had resulted in the first flight of a gas-turbine jet propelled aircraft. The Ohain engine was splendidly simple – incorporating a single-sided centrifugal compressor back-to-back with a centripetal turbine. However this attractively uncomplicated form never led to a useful aero-engine and, after much modification, the project was dropped in 1941 or 42. In the meantime, after some unhelpful interference by the German Air Ministry (RLM), axial compressor versions of the turbojet came under development at Junkers and BMW – the former designated Jumo 004 and the latter designated BMW 003. The 004B became the chosen engine for the futuristic Messerschmitt Me.262 jet fighter that began operational service with the Luftwaffe in October 1944.
Before the E28/39 had even flown, orders were placed with Gloster for a twin-engine fighter, the Gloster Meteor, to be powered by the W2B. Then, in October 1941, when the United States had yet to enter the war, the W1X and plans for the W2B were sent across the Atlantic. With matchless enthusiasm, the General Electric Company then began work on their own turbojet – becoming known as the A-I. In May 1942, Whittle went over to visit the GE plant to help overcome development problems, staying in America until early August. The A-I had begun testing just six months after the W1X was delivered. The first American turbojet-powered aeroplane flew in October the same year. Thus was laid the foundations of the US turbojet industry.
  1. Whittle, in uniform, and its designer George Carter, far right, in front of a Meteor I
  2. The Derwent-powered Meteor was produced in large numbers and fulfilled many roles
In January 1942, Ernest (later Lord) Hives a director of Rolls-Royce, visited Lutterworth following a discussion with Whittle about a possible tie-up between the two companies. It was clear that there would be a surplus of piston aero-engines at the end of the war. The jet engine could make these redundant and thus keep Rolls-Royce busy. Although Hives seems to have suggested a relationship and Power Jets agreed to give Rolls-Royce first refusal, negotiations were never entered into and an opportunity was lost. Meanwhile, de Havilland, Bristol and Metropolitan Vickers were each anxious to climb onto the gas turbine bandwagon. In the face of the development problems with the W2B and experience being gained from the flight trials of the E28/39, Whittle started a redesign, the W2/500, in March 1942. An engine was completed in exactly 6 months and ran to its design speed the day that it was handed over to test. “At last we have been able to design an engine with a background of experience,” Whittle said. It was clear that this engine was a possible candidate to power production Meteors rather than the W2B which Rover were contracted to supply and whose problems had already led to a cut-back in the aircraft’s production schedule. Prompted by the Ministry of Aircraft Production at the end of 1942, Rolls-Royce took over Rover’s W2B contract and acquired their plant at Barnoldswick in return for Rover taking over a Rolls-Royce factory making tank engines. Despite the exigencies of the war, 2 years had been lost through the inefficient organisation and duplication of W2 development. This had led to Power Jet’s focus being divided and Rover developing their own design, the B.26, under a separate contract kept secret from Whittle. He had always felt that he should have been given overall command of the push to production but Rover and BTH had opposed this and Tedder had acquiesced.
Whittle’s plan was that Rolls-Royce would put the W2/500 into production after the initial batch of 100 W2Bs had been completed. Instead, development of the W2B (later named ‘Welland’) proceeded so rapidly with Rolls-Royce’s resources behind it that, with some of the pressure off, the company decided to incorporate the best features of the W2/500 and the Rover straight-through combustion B.26 into a new design. This resulted in the Derwent 1(B37) – a more powerful engine to supplant the Welland.

The Derwent had a similar level of thrust to the next and final Whittle development, the W2/700. In effect, the two engines became competitors. But R-R were happy to move on from the reverse-flow combustion system of the Whittle engine and follow their own initiatives. Ernest Hives suggested that Rolls-Royce and Power Jets should link up, but whilst Whittle thought that a true development partnership should be possible, Hives made it clear that Rolls-Royce would never take orders from Power Jets. With Rolls-Royce now in control of Barnoldswick and with Whittle’s health deteriorating, it was Hives who let the opportunity pass on this occasion.
  1. Lord Hives, Chairman & Managing Director, Rolls-Royce
  2. Air Commodore Whittle c1946.

Public recognition – but the end of Power Jets

In April 1943, Whittle proposed to Sir Stafford Cripps, Minister of Aircraft Production, that the whole of the gas turbine industry be nationalized. The principal factors which prompted this, apart from Whittle’s own socialist beliefs at the time, were his conviction of the inevitability of Power Jets being swamped by the large companies now becoming involved and the fact that these had taken no risks themselves, having been handed government contracts and Power Jets’ know-how. He then was required to attend a 3 month Staff College course.
  1. Group Captain Frank Whittle in 1944
  2. Sir Stafford Cripps, Minister of Aircraft Production
  3. Whittle working with his trusty slide rule (No compact electronic computers in those days!)
Meanwhile much of Power Jets work was being transferred to Whetstone and its total staff had risen to over 1000. On 24th October 1943, Cripps told Whittle that Power Jets alone would be nationalized and that its future role would be to carry out research and development for exploitation by private industry. Whittle was awarded a CBE in the 1944 New Year Honours. 6 days later, bowing to US pressure, the jet engine was made public, thus making Whittle a reluctant national hero.
Although they could not thwart it, the nationalization of Power Jets alone proved unacceptable to Whittle, his fellow directors and many of his colleagues. The government would pay its shareholders no more than £135,000, but Whittle himself received none of this as he had surrendered his shares, as a serving officer, to the Ministry of Aircraft Production and his patent rights to the nation. In March 1944, Whittle was admitted to hospital and remained there for six months suffering from nervous exhaustion. He then returned to the nationalized Power Jets (R&D) Limited but sensed that the enthusiasm and drive that had been such a feature of the Lutterworth days was draining away.
  1. Frank Whittle and his fellow directors

Moreover, Rolls-Royce objected strongly to Power Jets (R&D) even building prototype engines. Further development of the W2/700 had been under way and work was proceeding on some important innovations: The first high-bypass turbo-fan engine (LR1) and the first after-burner (re-heat) with an aft fan system applied to the W2/700. These radical improvements to the basic turbojet had been foreseen by Whittle at some point before the end of 1933 – with patents filed in 1936. The aft fan version of the W2/700 with after-burner was intended to power the Miles M.52 experimental aircraft – predicted to attain a supersonic speed of 1,000 mph (1,600 kph). For reasons associated with political and industrial pressures the government subsequently cancelled all these innovative projects – including the M.52. Nearly twenty years would go by before GE stepped in with their first high-bypass turbo-fan engine. Rolls-Royce sat up and soon followed suit.

In October 1945, Whittle was at last able to make a flight in a Meteor 1 powered by engines he had himself designed – the W2/700. A few days later, he flew a Derwent-powered Meteor III. In January1946, disillusioned by events, he resigned from Power Jets (R&D) Ltd and reverted to normal duties with the RAF. The company was later merged with the gas turbine section of the Royal Aircraft Establishment and consolidated into the National Gas Turbine Establishment (NGTE) at Farnborough. Most of the small band which Whittle had built up – henceforth to be known as “The Reactionaries” and to meet informally once a year for the next fifty-odd years – dispersed a few weeks later to pursue separate careers in industry.

Whittle was promoted to Air Commodore in 1944, and remained in the RAF until 1948 when his poor health encouraged him to retire. The stress of fighting for his ideas had taken its toll. Shortly afterwards, he received an ex-gratia payment of £100,000 and a knighthood. In 1976, after 25 years of being officially separated from his wife Dorothy, he obtained a divorce and married Hazel, an American lady he had known for many years. He then moved to live in the USA and died there in 1996, aged 89. Meanwhile, Power Jet’s old office building at the Ladywood Works in Lutterworth, from a first floor window of which Frank shot rabbits to supplement wartime food rations, still stands.
  1. Air Commodore Whittle with Lt Shepherd taken in the USA at McDonnell Corporation
  2. In 1948 Frank Whittle was knighted by King George VI
  3. With a ¼ -scale model of a W2/700