Ian Whittle talks on his father

by Ian Homer. Posted to category: General

Sir Frank Whittle

Report on 'The Genesis of the Turbojet'
– A presentation at Brownsover Hall with Sir Frank Whittle’s son, Ian.

On Saturday 10th November, Sir Frank Whittle’s son, Ian, gave our final lecture, drawing the 2018 season of Vulcan to the Sky Trust regional events to a close. Here is an oversight of the day.
Do look out for news soon on the release of tickets for the first events in our 2019 programme.

The convenience of Brownsover Hall as a base for Frank Whittle’s work was obvious for our visitors, due to its location near the Rugby works of British Thomson-Houston, contracted for manufacturing components for the early Whittle engines and the Power Jets workshops in nearby Lutterworth.

Brownsover Hall.

Just a few days before his 84th birthday, Ian Whittle gave a highly informative and very entertaining presentation on his father’s life and of his own subsequent career in aviation – that obviously resulted from the environment in which he had grown up.


A capacity crowd of 75 people filled the very office used by Frank Whittle during the early development of his turbojet, based in the sumptuous Gothic-themed surroundings of Brownsover Hall on the outskirts of Rugby.

Ian started by telling us a little about his own life, as a pilot in the RAF for 5 years, flying such aircraft as Meteors and Hunters, before taking up a position with BOAC flying DC-3s across Africa. Moving forward through the years flying everything from the Vickers Viscount, through a range of more modern jet-engine types, before completing his career as a Captain on long-haul flights flying the Boeing 747.

“I did have a rather clever Daddy”, Ian went on to say, before talking more about his own childhood and the many ways his father had influenced him as a little boy, steering him towards this career path.

“This room you are sitting in was Dad’s office and I did visit as a little boy in about 1942 when I was 7 or 8, and I’d often be sent off to play in the garden.”

Ian talked about his father’s own working class roots in Coventry, and how he first gained interest in aircraft by having a clockwork model Bleriot-type aircraft model bought for Christmas, by Ian’s grandad, Moses Whittle.  This love of aircraft was later reinforced as a boy when “Little Whittle” as Ian described him, had a close-call with an aircraft when returning home from school one day. An aeroplane made an emergency landing on a common near Coventry, and as any group of young children would do at the time, he rushed over to see it and the pilot. This was probably 1916, and the aircraft was likely on the way from a nearby production facility to make the journey south to an operational airfield and onwards to the war effort.

Despite local police and adults clearing the way, such was Frank’s interest, that once the aeroplane was checked over, the engine started and made its take-off run, “Little Whittle” got in the way, resulting in his school cap being blown-off by the slip stream of the propeller. His love of aviation was confirmed at that moment. By the time he was 15, he was determined to join the recently formed RAF but was rejected due to his relatively small frame and height.

With the help of a local PT instructor, Whittle was placed on a special diet and as a result of that and perhaps more his own natural growth and exercise, gained 3 inches in height within 6 months, when he re-applied, only to be rejected as he had already applied for the RAF before.

On a third attempt, after failing to advise of any previous applications, young Whittle was finally accepted having passed the entrance examination in 1923, reported to RAF Halton to start a three year course as an Aircraft Apprentice.

His father Moses was making valves and piston rings at this time for the automotive industry at a workshop he purchased in Royal Leamington Spa, so “Little Whittle” had become very familiar with the metals used, designed specifically to withstand high temperatures encountered at the cylinder head. As part of studies into his theories, Frank had also briefed himself on the dynamics and functions of a turbine from a book written by a Swiss professor, which he had borrowed from the public library in Leamington.

During his time at RAF Halton, Whittle joined the Model Aircraft Society and one of Ian’s presentation slides showed his father next to a large model aircraft that he and colleagues had made. These models drew the eye of his commanding officer who also noted how good he was at mathematics.  

The end of the three year course, coincided with a new initiative by Hugh Trenchard, (later Chief of the Air Staff and seen as the ‘Father of the RAF’), that was to see the top five apprentices of each year offered a scholarship for officer training at RAF Cranwell. “Guess who came in at Number 6?” Ian asked the audience. Luckily for “Little Whittle”, one of the five turned out to be colour blind, leaving the door open for Frank to attend.

Becoming an Officer Cadet came with the added bonus of learning to fly in an Avro 504 which he took to with natural ability.

As part of their final year, students were required to submit a thesis, which for Whittle, at the tender age of 21, he demonstrated mathematically that a turbine had the potential to deliver faster speeds for aircraft in his ‘Future Developments in Aircraft Design’ paper.     

On graduation, Frank was posted to the Central Flying School to become a Flying Instructor, and became known for being quite a dare devil with test flying becoming more of his daily routine.

Some of this work involved testing carrier catapult launches and testing the best way to carry out a ditching on water.

One fascinating snippet of cine film Ian showed saw an observer in the rear seat of a bi-plane being displaced and clinging on to the tail of the aircraft before pilot Frank in the front, realising there was a problem, made a careful landing on the water. Fair to say, both survived to tell the tale.

At this point, we broke for an interval, with coffee, tea and pastries being served in the main hall before people gently settled back into their seats. Not before the sale of many Frank Whittle DVDs that were available to purchase on the day. You can order one here:


The second-half of the presentation carried on from the early 1930s, going through the patent application story and the struggles his father endured in trying to find support for his ideas.

Ian then walked us through the changing attitudes as funding was found to establish Power Jets which started development work and then, with renewed interest from the Air Ministry in 1939 as war clouds gathered over Europe, the results of a contract to deliver an airworthy version of the W.1 engine with an agreement to work with the Gloster Aircraft company on an aircraft that could carry it!

We were then shown some secretly filmed footage of the Gloster E.28/39 making its first flight on 15th May 1941 – a truly historic moment.

The story continues below this campaign message to vote for Sir Frank Whittle

on the new Bank of England £50 note. 

From here, Ian talked through the various changes made and the many developments Power Jets had in mind, not helped by the fractured manufacturing and design agreements and political pressures placed upon them in contracting work to Rover and Rolls-Royce.

Power Jets was nationalised after the war, while they had the idea of a turbofan on the drawing board, with the W2700 with aft-fan and re-heat planned for the Miles 52, highly anticipated to claim the sound barrier for Britain. In the end, the government insisted Miles provide the plans to America after cancelling the funding. Another project Britain could have led the world with, that never reached its true potential.

In 1946, the government cancelled the projects Power Jets had in development as they effectively controlled the company, after much lobbying from other aero engine manufacturers that thought they had an unfair advantage of state funding. 


A close-up on the engine model with Power Jets clearly marked in the casting. 


This led to the forced amalgamation of the top aero engine manufacturers and the current technologies were spread far and wide. Frank felt very angry as he had lost control over the very technology his designs and team had created.

The rest is history, and rather than dwell too much on his father’s thoughts on how he was treated by ‘the establishment’, Ian settled to give an overview of his later years and of his own close relationship with his father.

He told a quite amusing story, remembering when as a Captain of a 747, (probably when Frank was in his 70s) he invited his father to join him on the jump seat in the cockpit during an approach to Kai Tak, the old International Airport of Hong Kong. The approach to Runway 13 features a decent towards the hillsides, well below the summits and above building rooftops, just before a sharp right turn down the valley to the runway ahead, positioned at sea-level. (There are plenty of videos of this approach available on YouTube).


Ian Whittle. 

Although Ian had announced the manoeuvre to the passenger cabin to put everyone at ease, he felt his father had obviously missed the briefing as he took in all the action around him in the cockpit. With Frank directly behind him, he felt him squeeze the pilot's seat a little tighter as they descended, peering upwards over his shoulder to the view ahead and what looked like the impending disaster he thought was looming. Just after Ian made the turn, he could sense the relaxation in his father's stance and that once on the ground he congratulated him on such a wonderful landing.

What joy it must have given Frank to have witnessed his own son, flying the largest passenger aircraft in the world at that time, with the very power-plants developed from his own invention.

An invention that truly did change the world we live in today.

What a journey it must have been in ones’ own lifetime.

We salute you, Sir Frank.