This article will build over six weekly parts to tell the story of Olympus Engines - the power within Vulcan XH558.

Please check back here every Friday evening between now and the end of March.


Part 1 -The birth of the Jet Age

The reason for Vulcans having Olympus engines is very interesting and goes back to the early years of Jet engine development, with several strange coincidences and historical events that happen to relate back to Vulcan aircraft and even to XH558 herself.

To appreciate the rapid development in the post war years, one must first study the starting point of the early technology, so in part one of this multi-part story, we tell you more of the initial jet turbine designs by their inventor, Frank Whittle.

Born in Coventry in 1907, Frank’s father owned a small engineering workshop that was to be the spark for his 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.

The W2 version of Whittle's engine described in more detail in next week's installment


Next week: through the early designs, overcoming problems, Whittle begins work with Gloster Aircraft and so, our chain of development continues….