Whittle and the Birth of the Jet

Early years

Frank Whittle was born the eldest child of Moses and Sara 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.  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, becoming determined to join the RAF, was disappointed to be turned down as an aircraft apprentice because of his height and poor physique – he was only 5 ft. tall.  Within 6 months a rigorous fitness regime had added 3 inches to his height and chest measurement but he was turned down again – it transpired that once rejected, always rejected.  He decided to go through the application system again from scratch as if trying for the first time and was accepted.  In 1923 he reported to Cranwell to begin his apprenticeship. He had learnt not to give up, something that would prove useful later.


Whittle demonstrates crazy flying during an RAF pageant at Hendon.


In 1926, due to his outstanding qualities as an apprentice, he was awarded a cadetship at the RAF College at Cranwell to train as a Pilot Officer. Here he developed into something of a daredevil pilot and was, amongst other things, punished for hedge-hopping. Before graduating from there, though, he had written a revolutionary thesis “Future Developments in Aircraft Design”. Here he identified gas turbine power driving propellers and rocket propulsion as ways to propel aircraft at far higher speeds and altitudes than any so far achieved. His 2 years as a Flight Cadet ended in 1928 and he passed out with distinction, also winning the coveted Andy Gerrard Fellowes Memorial Prize for Aeronautical Sciences. Posted to Operational Squadron No.111 as a Pilot Officer, he moved to the Central Flying School in 1929 to qualify as a flying instructor. Here his ideas of the turbo-jet engine, i.e. a gas turbine driving a plane forward solely by its reaction to the jet of hot exhaust gas, were developed and brought to the attention of the Commandant. He in turn alerted the Air Ministry who arranged for him to meet Dr A A Griffith, who had started seriously considering gas turbines for aircraft propulsion as early as 1926 but strongly favoured using them to drive propellers. In a meeting of considerable consequence, Griffith rejected Whittle’s proposals and reported negatively to the Ministry, who accepted that his ideas were impracticable. Whittle nevertheless went ahead and took out the first patent for a turbo-jet in 1930. As the President of the Air Council declared that there was no need for secrecy regarding his patents, this was published in 1932, when copies were purchased by the German Trade Commission in London and circulated to the German Air Ministry (RML) and German aero-engine manufacturers. Unfortunately the patent then lapsed because Whittle could not afford the renewal fee of £5.00 and the RAF declined to reimburse him.

By the end of the year Whittle was testing the ditching qualities of ship-launched biplanes; a somewhat hazardous task for someone unable to  swim.

Whittle at Cambridge

Every officer with a permanent commission was expected to take a specialist course and as a result Whittle attended the Officers’ Engineering Course at Henlow in 1932, where he obtained an aggregate of 98% in all subjects in his exams, completing the course in 18 months instead of the more normal 2 years. This resulted in the RAF deciding to send him to Cambridge University to take a Mechanical Sciences Tripos, although he was by now heavily involved in the design of his first turbo-jet engine, the WU. In May 1935 he received a private letter from former Cranwell fellow cadet R Dudley Williams, proposing raising private capital to develop his ideas in the face of the official indifference. Together with another friend, J C B Tinling and the firm of investment bankers O T Falk and Partners, a company was proposed, to be known as Power Jets Limited. This was formed in November 1935.

In 2004 a blue plaque was erected at the entrance to Cambridge University Department of Engineering.


Some idea of the problems involved can be obtained by comparing his concept with the then state of the art.  For instance, the compressor 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 a turbine of only 400 mm diameter would need to develop 3,000 hp.  Whilst finding solutions to these problems, promoting his ideas, seeking out suppliers and getting a development programme under way he completed his Tripos and gained a First – all in 2 years instead of the usual 3.   Permitted a further year at Cambridge for research, Whittle was then placed on the Special Duty List and allowed to supervise the manufacture of components and the building of his WU engine, which he ran successfully at the British Thompson-Houston works at Rugby on 12th. April 1937.


WU in its original form


The move to Lutterworth.

Unfortunately, in its early runs the engine showed a tendency to behave erratically so BT-H 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, Whittle this time replacing the single, large combustion chamber with 10 small ones. The rebuilt engine was delivered in September 1938 as the finances of Power Jets reached a critical condition, with engine performance well below theoretical estimates and with Whittle, who was already showing signs of the strain he was under, being told that he might be returned to regular service, the military having been put on a state of emergency. A skilful and highly experienced pilot, he would clearly have been invaluable in helping train the pilots for the fighter squadrons now being formed. Tests of the rebuilt engine, however, were looking promising until fracturing occurred on the impeller blade tops of the compressor. Its replacement resulted in a further delay of almost 2 months. Testing resumed on 17th June 1939 and 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, witnessed a test and was so impressed that, previously a sceptic, he was totally converted. It was agreed that the Air Ministry would buy the engine and loan it back to Power Jets for further testing whilst covering all costs.

The original WU engine, after its second rebuild, ready for testing at the Ladywood Works


However this resulted in the Company and its servants becoming subject to the Official Secrets Act, with the result that outside investors could no longer be approached for funds – until now all finance had been raised from private sources. Fortunately, within weeks a flight engine, W1, was ordered by the Ministry and the team began to grow as talented graduates and experienced technicians were recruited.  

The vulnerability of Power Jets.

With the government at last behind the concept of the turbo-jet and financing development of the W1, design could now start on a new engine, W2, with greater power – 1,600lbs compared with 1,240lbs for the W1. However problems soon arose over who would produce production quantities of the new engine. Whittle, always 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 the company investing money in Power Jets in return for contracts. This seems to have alerted them to the greater opportunities the new technology might present and they started their own negotiations with the Ministry, with the result that it proposed that it give contracts for development engines directly to Rover, with Power Jets handing over all drawings and information and for the two companies to co-operate intimately, although Power Jets would not be allowed to manufacture engine parts itself. A further contract to build W2s was given to BTH.

This was crippling for Power Jets for 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 could exercise free use of patents, with the result that the Air Ministry considered that the company had little left to offer in return for Air Ministry financing. That it alone had created a working and practical jet engine, that this was increasingly being recognised as of great potential importance as the generic future aviation power plant, that the engine had yet to be translated into a service application and that the team that had brought it this far was anxious to take it to the next stage would all seem important, if intangible, assets. However the engine’s extreme simplicity compared to supercharged piston engines of similar power, the fact that it was the creation of a mere Squadron Leader with very little finance and the ambiguous position of Whittle himself, as both an experienced and valuable serving officer and Power Jet’s principal driving force, must have suggested to the Ministry that everything might now be best passed 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 innovative design, operating at the limits of materials technology.  

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 and he ensured that it would be maintained as a research organisation, 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 design work on the W2 progressed and it became clear that significant changes were needed, resulting in its re-designation as the W2B. Relationships with BTH and Rover were deteriorating as they made changes to the design which Whittle thought were ill-advised, whilst Rover had now established their own independent development facility. Rover’s determination to act independently at this stage in the production of a brand new engine concept, spurning any collaboration with its inventor and his team, caused Whittle considerable stress. All this was taking place whilst 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 at all for a form of propulsion that had not yet taken to the air deserves to be applauded. Soon, though, the W2B was itself experiencing problems with fuel vaporising and turbine blade cracking.  Lutterworth residents still recall the continuous sound of engine testing – claiming that when it sometimes stopped in the night the silence woke them up, whilst a hawthorn hedge in line with the efflux of engines under test burst into flower in February.   During 1940 it had become obvious that more space was needed. There had been an influx of boffins, many billeted on local households, with some working on the stairs to Whittle’s office, whilst a railway coach parked on a nearby siding had become the office of the combustion engineers. Rooms were rented at Brownsover Hall, a large house on the northern edge of Rugby. Whittle moved his office there, taking with him his senior design staff. The main Design 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.

A Rover-built W2B reverse flow engine.


The Gloster E28/39.

In April 1939 Whittle had visited Gloster Aircraft where he had met their chief designer, George Carter. As a result, Carter had begun to explore possible aircraft configurations and by October was focussing on 2 alternative designs. With the promising performance of the prototype engine, a specification was agreed (the 28th that year, with “E” standing for “Experimental”) and issued in the following January, with an order for 2 prototypes following on 3rd February. By April 1941 a test version of the flight engine – W1X – was assembled and run at Lutterworth just as the first of the Gloster Whittle E28/39s was completed.  Installed in the airframe at Hucclecote, taxying trials there showed that some 13,000 revs. (the initial limit) were needed before the aircraft started to role on the soft, bumpy grass. With maximum permissible revs. raised to 16,000, though, the aircraft briefly lifted off on each of its last 3 runs. Moved to Cranwell with its concrete runway and with the flight engine, W1, installed the aircraft made its first historic flight on the evening of 15th May, piloted by Gerry Sayer.  A year and nine months earlier, unknown to the Allies, the work of a German academic and engineer Hans von Ohain, working with the support of  Dr Heinkel and his company, had resulted in the first flight of a gas-turbine propelled aircraft. This acted as a spur to a large development effort aimed at producing turbo-jets for German combat aircraft – they soon had 6 teams working on various projects. These engines were mostly configured using axial rather than centrifugal compressors, being able to benefit from the research carried-out by RML whilst British research into axial compressors at Farnborough had been suspended.  Whittle’s original patent had shown a compressor of 2 axial stages followed by a centrifugal stage but he had subsequently only used a double-sided centrifugal compressor because of its greater simplicity (as had von Ohain) and because British companies had more knowledge and experience with this type, from their use in piston engine superchargers.   With so much else that was new, risks had to be reduced where possible. In practice, early German axial engines suffered more than centrifugals from poor acceleration, vibration, compressor surge and blade stall problems, although ultimately axial compressors would prove the way to greater power and efficiency.

The E28/39 shown over Cranfield on its first flight, artist Kenneth McDonough.  


Industry gets on board.

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 W2, whilst in October 1941, when the US had yet to enter the war, W1X was sent to the USA following a visit by US General Arnold, himself already aware of Whittle’s patents.  The US government commissioned a production engine from General Electric, the GE IA, and Whittle himself visited Boston from June to August 1942 to help overcome development problems, the engine having been designed, built and tested in 6 months. Thus were laid the foundations of the US gas turbine industry. By October of that year the first US jet, the Bell Airacomet, had flown.

In January 1942 Ernest (later Lord) Hives (http://100.rolls-royce.com/people/view.jsp?id=122 ) 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 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 complete redesign, the W2/500, in March 1942 and an engine was completed exactly 6 months later, being run up 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. At the end of 1942 Rolls Royce took over Rover’s W2B contract, at the prompting of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, by acquiring their plant at Barnoldswick in return for Rover taking over a Rolls Royce factory making tank engines. Possibly 2 years had been lost through the inefficient organisation and duplication of W2 development, leading to Power Jet’s and Whittle’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.

The Derwent-powered Meteor was produced in large numbers and fulfilled many roles


Possibly 2 years had been lost through the inefficient organisation and duplication of W2 development, leading to Power Jet’s and Whittle’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, in uniform, and its designer George Carter, far right, in front of a Meteor I


Whittle’s plan now was that Rolls-Royce would put the W2/500 into production after an initial batch of 100 W2Bs, named the Welland by Rolls-Royce. Instead, development of the W2B/Welland now preceded so rapidly with Rolls-Royse’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 B.26 into a new design, called the B.27 or Derwent. This, like the next Whittle development, the W2/700, was designed for a thrust of 2,000 lbs, making the engines competitors. 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 Whittle’s health deteriorating, this time it was Hives who let the opportunity pass.  

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 nationalised. The principal factors which prompted this, apart from Whittle’s own socialist beliefs at this 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. 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 nationalised and that its future role would be to carry out research and development to be exploited by private industry. Whittle was awarded a CBE in the 1944 New Year Honours and 6 days later, bowing to US pressure, the jet engine was made public, making Whittle a national hero.

Although they could not thwart it, the nationalisation 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. In March 1944 Whittle was admitted to hospital and remained there, suffering from nervous exhaustion, for 6 months. For a while he returned to the nationalised Power Jets (Rand D) Limited but sensed that the enthusiasm and drive that had been such a feature of the Lutterworth days was draining away now that the company was so large and under government control. Moreover, Rolls-Royce objected strongly to it even building prototype engines, although development of the W2/700 had proceeded and work was under way on two important innovations: the first by-pass turbo-fan and the first after-burner (or re-heat) installation, both of which Whittle had foreseen in a patent filed in 1936. The after-burner was for the Miles M52, intended to be powered by a W2/700 and to reach speeds of 1,000mph. Both projects were subsequently cancelled. In October he was at last able to make several flights in a Meteor 1 powered by engines he had himself designed, W2/700s. In January1946 he resigned from Power Jets (R and D) Ltd, the company later becoming merged with the gas turbine section of the Royal Aircraft Establishment and being 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, promoted to Air Commodore in 1944, remained in the RAF but retired through ill-health in 1948, the stress of fighting for his ideas having taken its toll. Shortly afterwards he received an ex-gratia payment of £100,000 and a knighthood. He settled in America in 1975 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 Sir Frank shot  rabbits to supplement wartime food rations, still stands.