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Father of the Jet Age - Frank Whittle

Air Commodore Frank Whittle CBE (at that time) at his post war RAF desk. Note the two Gloster aircraft models on his desk and the model engine.

Frank Whittle was born in Coventry in 1907. His father owned a small engineering workshop that was to be the spark for interest in technical and mechanical things, resulting in studious research in his local library when winning a scholarship to a secondary school later to become Leamington College for Boys. It was here that his interest grew in aircraft and the RAF, with his first application to join as an aircraft apprentice being rejected not once, but twice, due to his small physique and height at the time. Eventually, in 1923 at the age of 16, he was accepted by Cranwell to start his apprenticeship.

With outstanding qualities witnessed by his tutors, he was quickly awarded a cadetship at the RAF College to train as a Pilot Officer, where he wrote a thesis on ‘Future Developments in Aircraft Design’. He proposed gas turbines (the result of generating hot expansive gases to drive a fan) could be used to turn propellers and suggested rocket propulsion might also be a way of powering aircraft in the future. At this time, aircraft designs were well behind the structural and aerodynamic shapes that would be needed for such speeds offered, but the idea to drive the known technology of propellers was seen as a real possibility worth further investigation. By 1929, he had qualified as a Pilot Officer and went off to the Central Flying School to qualify as a flying instructor, still refining his thoughts and sketches.

Whilst at the Flying School, his work was brought to the attention of a senior officer, who in turn, being quite impressed, alerted the Air Ministry who on first discussions with a favoured academic known to have done similar research, reported back to them. This only resulted in a firm rejection of the proposals, having them deemed to be too impractical.

Whittle however, decided to register a patent in 1930 and continued to hope for renewed interest once certain problems had been overcome. Unfortunately, by 1932, not having the means to pay the £5 renewal fee, the patent was allowed to lapse and copies were quickly purchased by the German Air Ministry and passed to German aero-engine manufacturers.

As an officer with a permanent placement, Whittle was expected to take a specialist course and it was on an Officers’ Engineering Course at Henlow in 1932, where he obtained an average mark of 98% in all of his exams, completing the course in just 18 months instead of the more normal 2 years. This resulted in the RAF deciding to send him to Cambridge University to take Mechanical Sciences. He was now heavily involved in the design of his first turbo-jet engine, the WU, (Whittle Unit) as part of his project work.

In 1935 he received a letter from a former Cranwell friend and fellow cadet, who proposed raising private capital to develop his ideas in the face of the official indifference. Together with friends and a firm of investment bankers, a company was formed called Power Jets Limited. This was November 1935.

The first test bed versions of his engine ran as early as April 1937, when his company contracted construction to Rugby based British Thomson Houston. As early designs had a habit of blowing up or being problematical at very high speeds of revolution, they transferred production to a disused Foundry they owned near Lutterworth in Leicestershire, more for safety reasons it would appear, so Whittle and his small team moved there to develop the engine further.

One of the early test beds at Lutterworth

A later W2 version, with clear similarities to the first unit.

Meantime over in Germany, Dr. Hans von Ohain, a graduate of physics and applied mathematics at Gottingen University had deposited patents in 1935, showing as Whittle, both axial and centrifugal compressors in his designs. He managed to interest Heinkel Aircraft in his research and with their funding, was able to run his first test bed model only three months after Whittle. There is little doubt that Germany were able to glean much from Whittle’s patents some five years earlier, and Whittle and his team were still struggling along with no major commercial or government support.

It was now early 1938 and the WU engine was placed on a test bed inside a brick building to allow secretive workings in relative comfort, with the exhaust aimed though a circular hole in the wall with timber shutters that would be removed during testing.

After one promising test being quickly curtailed by a catastrophic failure due to impeller blade fractures, the RAF were beginning to wonder if Whittle would be better back at the flying school. War was imminent and training of front-line pilots would be a great use of his skills.

Ever determined to prove he could solve the problems, and after two solid months of hard work, a slightly modified WU appeared ready for testing after almost a complete rebuild. This engine began to reach 16,000rpm producing some 1,200lbs of thrust whilst remaining stable.

Just two weeks after first running, Whittle invited Dr Pye from the Air Ministry to see a test. Always previously sceptical, Dr Pye walked away totally converted to the potential of the new power plant and suggested the Ministry buy the engine to loan it back to Power Jets, whilst covering all future development costs.

Finally, on 30th June 1939, Whittle had the backing needed to develop the engine further. The compromise, was now becoming servants of the Government and subject to the Official Secrets Act, stopping any other form of investment from private sources. To an extent, Whittle had to forsake full control of his company.

A flight ready version of the WU was called the W1, which was soon superceded by a more powerful version rated at 1,600lbs and designated the W2.

It was clear Power Jets would not have the capacity to manufacture the likely number of units needed for a test flight programme, let alone production aircraft. Whittle approached Rover Cars in January of 1940 with a view to using their facilities. As it turned out, he was being cautious, worried traditional aircraft engine manufacturers would glean too much of the early technology and become rivals to his company. As it was, Rover approached the Ministry directly, assuring them of their abilities that saw production contracts placed with them over Power Jets, while Whittle was told to hand over all drawings and information whilst being instructed to co-operate with them fully.

One can only imagine Whittles’ frustration, but it was now deemed to be a project for the ‘big boys’ and the Crown could exercise free rights over any patents held. While Whittle and his team would remain as consultants to undertake research and development, it was decided that in the light of a looming war, such potential in the radical design should be put out to leading aero engine manufacturers who were still trying to extract the maximum out of pistons driving propellers.

In April of 1939, Whittle visited Gloster Aircraft to hold a meeting with their chief designer, George Carter. From this, Carter began to explore several possible airframe designs that could accommodate the W1. Eventually settling on two possibilities, two prototypes were ordered and work began refining a flight version of the engine to be used – later designated W1X. This was assembled and test run at Lutterworth just as the airframes were being completed.

Meanwhile, over in Germany, Heinkel had built the He 178 which first flew under jet power in August of 1939. Due to many technical problems with the engine, the project was abandoned after just three short flights.

E28/39 was a contract awarded to Gloster Aircraft to develop two ‘proof of concept’ aircraft ahead of a production specification for a twin engine fighter or bomber aircraft, seen as crucial to help with the war effort.

With a design built, ground testing urgently needed a reliable engine and Rover were still well away from having the newly specified W2 engines completed, so the lower powered version W1.X would be used for early taxi trials, with a series of short ‘hops’ being completed near the Gloster factory.

Developing 850lbs (3.8kN) of thrust, what must have seemed a rather strange propeller-less aircraft finally rose to the air from Cranwell on 15th May 1941 and undertook a flight lasting just 15 minutes before landing back safely.

Within days, the aircraft reached speeds of over 365mph and reached heights well in excess of 25,000 feet, easily surpassing the performance statistics of the latest Spitfires. The whole aircraft industry now sat up and wondered in amazement at this new technology, with the Americans quickly showing a special interest - to the point of even requesting a Power Jets team fly out to Washington with a complete W1X engine so that General Electric could examine it!

A commemorative plaque and full size replica of the E29/39 stands on the main A5 island in Lutterworth today.

Rover set up a production facility in their unused production facility at Barnoldswick in Lancashire, specifically to develop engines of the Power Jets design.

A newly designated W.1A was now fitted to the second E29/39 aircraft and by March 1942 the aircraft was reaching speeds of 430mph at 15,000 feet. On the strength of this success, the Ministry approved continued work and funding towards the twin engine design now known as The Meteor.

With concerns over Rover's ability to reach production in time for the Meteor, Whittle approached Stanley Hooker who led the supercharger division of Rolls-Royce, which seemed a natural fit with work of this nature. With agreements made, Rolls began working with Whittle on resolving the remaining issues in his design.

Meanwhile, Rover had radically changed the W2 design themselves without Whittle's knowledge and had set up a shadow factory only a few miles away in Waterloo Mill, Clitheroe, all under the watchful eye of the Air Ministry. They were keen to see different companies tackle the remaining technical problems in order to achieve the fastest possible engine build that suited the Meteor specification.

Whittle's own new design, now designated W2/500 and developed under a contract placed with Rolls-Royce for six of the engines first ran in September 1942 generating 1,750lbs of thrust.


Eventually, finding out about the ‘special arrangements’ by Rover and their rival design, an angry Whittle asked that the major players consider a meeting, and as was the way of business in those days, it was convened in a local pub where an exchange of factories was agreed by handshake, meaning Rolls-Royce would take over Rover's jet turbine production in exchange for a tank engine factory they owned in Nottingham. It seemed Rover had had enough of the technology that was outside of their normal work. The official deal concluded on 1st January 1943.

Because of duplicate production lines and lack of co-ordination between the two design and test facilities, let alone Whittle's own development team still at Lutterworth, it was felt a good two years had been added to the development programme.

Now with the resources of Rolls-Royce behind him there was rapid development and indeed, Rover had actually tested their version of the W.2B for over 37 hours when the exchange took place, so development continued apace with Rolls-Royce, testing a unit for over 390 hours within a month of taking over. By May, the unit was delivering 1,600lbs of thrust, slightly less than the design specification, but with total reliability.

Out of interest, the now 'Rolls-Royce' plant led to the latter designation of their engines as RB (Rolls-Barnoldswick) to distinguish the engines that were to be developed and built there.

Whilst all this confusion and eventual consolidation had taken place, Gloster Aircraft had continued work on the Meteor design and whilst awaiting news on their preferred choice of a ‘Whittle’ engine, had gone ahead with the first test flight on 5th March 1943 - using engines designed by de-Havilland. Already, the aero industry were striding ahead with their own designs based on the freely available data passed around by a very enthusiastic Air Ministry. At this point all the work was completely TOP SECRET and little was known by a public and country at war with Germany.

With designs now spreading to a larger section of the aircraft industry and even over to the USA, it was during a demonstration of the flying E.28/39 to Winston Churchill in 1943, that Whittle first proposed that the whole jet engine industry should be nationalised. It was the only way he hoped to salvage the right financial rewards for his company. As with most things involving bureaucracy, Whittle realised he would probably have to wait a while for any decision.

By 1944, the latest version of the Meteor took flight with Whittles W.2 engine manufactured by Rolls-Royce. Early instability inherent in early jet aircraft designs and unreliable control surfaces subject to unknown pressures by these fast performance aircraft led to a host of crashes and heavy loss of life. It was a sad indication that in the time before ejection seats, brave airmen and test pilots often put their lives on the line for the sake of rapid advancement in technology. Both major engine and airframe developments were happening on an almost weekly basis.

Many separate companies were now openly copying the jet turbine work pioneered by Power Jets and government contracts were being awarded with no royalty being paid to them.

In the end, when Nationalisation came, all other companies were left independent and the government decided to take over Power Jets alone for the sum of £135,000. In return, Whittle, having offered to surrender all his shares in order to promote the larger deal - received nothing. Perhaps as a compromise, Whittle was awarded the CBE in the New Years Honours of 1944 and a personal award of just £10,000. It was an experience that greatly upset Whittle and put him through a bout of severe depression taking six months off with nervous exhaustion.

With a changed role as Chief Technical Advisor to the Ministry, in 1946 and with some disgust, Whittle finally resigned from Power Jets along with 16 other employees.

During 1948 Whittle finally received an ex-gratia award of £100,000 from thr Royal Commission in recognition of his work and was made a Knight of the British Empire.

With various companies including ones in America now working on different versions of his ideas, he was very much in demand on the lecture circuit and it was whilst on a tour in America in late 1948 that he again broke down and whilst recovering, decided to retire from the RAF on medical grounds.

He joined BOAC as an advisor on engines and travelled the world extensively over the next few years acting as a consultant to many new designs. By 1952, he had left BOAC to take time out to write an autobiography: Jet: The story of a Pioneer.

After this, he accepted a position with Shell Oil where he worked on developing a new self-powered drilling rig, driven by a turbine running on lubricated mud that is pumped into the bore hole. This was a whole new way of drilling holes that has recently been perfected in various oilfields where drilling on an angle or down and then sideways is made posssible by such technology. His work with Shell led to him presenting the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture of 1954 on 'The Story of Petroleum'.

Again, buy a strange quirk of fete, Whittle ended up back at Bristol Aero Engines as an advisor where he not only helped develop the Olympus more with his old friend Stanley Hooker for a short time, but was able to re-ignite his Oil drill idea and set up Bristol Siddeley Whittle Tools to further develop the principle.

By 1976, with a broken marriage dissolved and after marrying an American lady, he decided to emigrate to the United States where he accepted a part-time position with the US Navy whist also undertaking the lecture tour circuit. It was then he met up with his old rival and contemporary jet designer Hans von Ohain, who had himself moved to America after the war. After an initial frosty relationship, because Whittle thought von Ohain had merely copied his original patents, it became clear to both men that each had developed their ideas quite independently of each other. They would later tour together demonstrating the basic principles and more detailed findings of their respective works. They actually became quite firm friends.

By the early 60's and with the mass communications of TV, Film and jet travel becoming widespread in everyday life, Whittle became a household name across the world and certainly a hero to his fellow countrymen. Finally, he would see out his latter years knowing he had finally received the recognition he so richly deserved as the 'Father of The Jet Age'.

In later life, Whittle remained in his home town of Columbia, Maryland, where he died from lung cancer in 1996 at the age of 89. His ashes were returned to Cranwell to be placed in a memorial.

Coventry's own memorial to their famous son is a statue of him looking up to first flight underneath the 'Whittle arches', symbolising a bridge from the past, to the present and to the future ....

 



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