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A flight ready version of the WU was called the W1, which was soon superceded by a more powerful version rated at 1,600lbs and designated the W2.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.
The first aircraft to fly using solely jet turbine power, the Heinkel He 178
Next week: The Gloster Whittle E28/39 is born and takes to the skies, whilst the politics of spreading the technology of jet engine production leads to rapid development with other companies ....... including Rolls-Royce and Bristol.