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!
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.
Gloster’s locally placed rivals over at the Bristol Aeroplane Company and their large specialist aero engine division, the Bristol Engine Company, were just one of those keeping a very close watch on the new technology as they were about to enter the Jet turbine market themselves.
The Gloster E28/39 and Gloster Meteor, both early pictures of these pioneering British Jet turbine aircraft
Next week: nationalisation for Power Jets, The Meteor flies under 'Rolls-Whittle' power and Bristol approach Stanley Hooker from Rolls-Royce