Sir Frank Whittle is mostly known for one thing; co-inventing the jet engine. German Dr. Hans von Ohain is credited as the other inventor, and both of them built a working jet engine in the 1930's.
Frank Whittle was born on June 1, 1907 in Earlsdon, Coventry. His father ran an engineering business, and that sparked his interest in engineering and particularly aircraft. In 1923 he passed out of Leamington College - which he had entered at the age of 11 on a scholarship - and went to RAF Cranwell to become an apprentice aircraft fitter.
Three years later he was selected for officer and pilot training at RAF Staff College at Cranwell in Lincolnshire. In 1928 he finished number two in his class and was described as an "Above Average to Exceptional" pilot. Whittle was a daring pilot flying upside down on many occasions, completely disregarding the regulations.
The aircraft of the 1920's were all powered by piston engines with propellers for propulsion. This method limited both the speed and height which the aircraft could achieve.
I arrived at what I now know was the well-known Brevet formula - I wasn't familiar with it at the time - connecting speed, range, engine efficiency and so forth. To me that meant that if you wanted to go very fast and far you would have to go very high, heights of 50,000ft, that sort of thing, at heights where the piston engine obviously wouldn't work, and at speeds where the propeller wouldn't work, so it was, I started to look for a new kind of power plant.
- Frank Whittle
His fourth term final thesis Future Development of Aircraft for the RAF Staff College contained the initial thoughts on jet propulsion. During 1929 he refined his ideas and was granted British Patent No. 374206 in January 1930 for "a gas turbine for jet propulsion". The patent was not secret, and Germany got hold of the concept to use in their own jet engines. Whittle approached the Air Ministry with his patent, but they showed no interest in it. Britain was in a state of indstrial depression in the 1930's, making it difficult to find money for developing new products. Whittle could not even afford to renew his patent.
After the idea had come to me I thought to myself, "my goodness why didn't I think of this before", and it seemed so obvious then.
- Frank Whittle
In 1934 RAF sent Whittle - now a Group Captain - to Cambridge University to study at the Department of Engineering where he gained a Bachelor's Degree with first class honours in only two years. This would boost Whittle's credibility as an inventor tremendously.
Power Jets Ltd.
Whilst at Cambridge, Whittle continued to work on the jet engine concept. He was approached by two former RAF officers; J.C.B. Tinling and R.D. Williams, who suggested they team up and get started building a working jet engine. Whittle was anything but optimistic, but they went ahead and formed Power Jets Ltd in 1936. Later that year his newly patented bypass turbojet design was ready for the prototype stage. RAF was supportive of Whittle and allowed him to pursue the building of a jet engine at the British Thomson Houston factory in Rugby. Thomson Houston made gas turbines, an important part of Whittle's design.
In April 1937 the first prototype was finished, started and run up to 13600 rpm. The prototype named W.1 was so noisy that the crowd gathered to witness the engine run ran for cover! After the successful test of the jet engine, the Air Ministry finally took an interest in Whittles project and awarded him a contract for a production engine in March 1938. Gloster Aircraft Co. was contracted to build an aircraft for the engine, and in the early evening on May 15, 1941 the Gloster E.28/39 nicknamed "Squirt" took off from RAF Cranwell with Whittles engine W1X for propulsion. The war had given Whittle's engine a new lease on life.
Oh it's easy old boy, it just sucks itself along like a hoover.
- RAF officer explaining how the jet engine works
The initial flight lasted 17 minutes with Gloster chief test pilot Flight Lieutenant P.E.G. Sayer at the controls. Under the heading Airscrew on the standard form test flight report it is dryly stated: "No airscrew fitted with this method of propulsion." The Gloster E.28/39 went on to fly seventeen more succesful test flights without a single mishap.
Originally, Rover Company - the car maker - had been given the job of mass-producing Whittle's engine. Whittle intended Rover to be a subcontractor and only that, but they went behind his back and got their own contract with the Air Ministry. In effect, Rover had become Power Jets' competitors with the advantage of being handled all of Power Jets' information by order of the Air Ministry. Eventually Rover was told to give the job to Rolls-Royce, but this only served to weaken Power Jets further. Bureaucracy and other companies' policies was working against Whittle. He was the classic inventor you might say.
The jet engine goes to America
The United States government had learned of the Whittle engine, and in September 1941 requested Bell Aircraft Corporation to build a jet fighter. Frank Whittle and an engine was sent to General Electric in October to help out, resulting in Bell designing and building the highly secret twin engine XP-59A Airacomet almost from scratch in only one year. It flew on October 1, 1942 and was a disappointment. It was actually slower than the fastest piston engine fighters of the day and the Airacomet never saw active service. America however, had gotten their first experiences with jet engines, and as we know; the rest is history.
Up until January 1944, everything surrounding Whittle's invention had been done in secrecy. For some reason the governments of Great Britain and America decided to make a public announcement about it. The press went crazy over the seemingly impossible invention:
"Britain has fighter with no propeller"
It seemed Whittle was at his peak, but in fact it was all going downhill for him from here. He advised the Air Ministry that all the companies should be nationalised, forming a collective turbo jet establishment. To Whittles dismay, only Power Jets Ltd was nationalised, and on top of that they were told that they could not make engines in competition with the private industry. The very man that had invented the engine was deprived of the possibility of building it. He didn't quite fit in with the aerospace establishment, so he effectively found himself without work.
In 1948 he retired from RAF on medical grounds with the rank of Air Commodore. Later that year he was knighted by King George VI and received a financial reward of £100,000 from the Royal Commision on Awards to Inventions. Parts of the money was divided between some of his staff, showing Whittle's loyalty to his people.
Frank Whittle was described by his secretary Betty Loughton as a workaholic. He never took much time off and was constantly working on his engine and technical problems surrounding it. This eventually took its toll, and after leaving the RAF he suffered from a series of nervous breakdowns. Recovering his health took years, but he would still bear the mark of working long hours soaked in paraffin, too little sleep and the heavy smoking and drinking.
In 1949 the famous de Havilland Comet was launched, being the first commercial jet airliner. However, it was the Boeing 707 that brought long range jet travel to the masses, and soon the majority of civilan jet aircraft was bought from America. The coming of the jet age was the fruition of Whittle's dreams, and he took up a position with the BOAC as an advisor.
In the post war years Whittle was in popular demand as a technical advisor with major companies such as BOAC. Shell, Bristol Siddeley Engines and Rolls Royce. He also embarked on a series of lecture tours which took him around the globe. In 1976 he moved to the USA and married for the second time to Hazel Hall. In the US he became a professor of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.
At the age of 90, Frank Whittle died of cancer after a long fight. On his deathbed he was visited by Ian, his son who was a Boeing 747 pilot:
On the last morning of his life I leant over his bed and said:
Dad, let's put on our kit and go flying. He opened his eyes and looked at me and smiled. That evening, with Hazel holding his hand, he died, and I wondered if he went flying and if he did, if he went on his own or did he have a companion.