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Knight of the Skies

A tribute to Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle

By David Wardell

There are few inventors who can genuinely claim that their inventions have changed the world – Frank Whittle, father of the jet engine was one.  In retrospect it is almost unbelievable that his ideas were originally either ignored or ridiculed.  However, he was a man of indomitable spirit who eventually won through – here is his story…


Whittle was born into modest surroundings in the English engineering city of Coventry.  His father, Moses Whittle, was a foreman in a machine tool factory and, like his son, was blessed with an inventive mind – although he never achieved commercial success with any of his own inventions.  Moses later bought his own small engineering firm which inevitably helped foster Frank’s interest.  After a council-run primary schooling, the young Whittle earned a higher education scholarship to Leamington College where he showed no outstanding qualities.  His spare time was spent poring over steam turbine and other engine designs in the library – rather than concentrating on his homework.  He had experimented with making things from a very early age and as he grew older he developed a passion for aircraft.

The RAF soon recognised a gifted recruit and in 1926 Whittle was accepted for officer and pilot training.  Two years later he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer and assigned Fighter Squadron flying duties.  Before graduating he had written and presented a thesis entitled ‘Future Development in Aircraft Design’; this marked the start of his quest to find a new propulsion system which would attain heights and speeds beyond the abilities of the conventional piston engine and propeller combination.  At the end of 1929, while undergoing a flying instructors course, he hit on the idea of using a gas turbine to produce a propelling jet. The concept was rejected by the Air Ministry who felt that the lack of special alloys to construct the engine meant that in practice the concept was just a pipe-dream.  Whittle, convinced of the merit in his ideas, filed a provisional patent application on January 16th 1930 – he was then aged only 22.In 1930 he married his first wife, Dorothy, who was later to bear him two sons.  In this year he was promoted to Flying Officer and selected, with a partner, to perform the dual ‘crazy-flying’ event at the RAF Pageant staged at Hendon – a performance requiring great skill and airmanship.  Although he was a naturally gifted pilot, things had not always been so good.  Earlier in his flying career he had been branded as over-confident – he was the first cadet to perform a ‘bunt’ (a potentially risky, but flashy, manoeuvre) during his graduation display.  This had been authorised by his Flight Commander but in the event he was disqualified for dangerous flying which robbed him of a prize and first place on his cadet course.  1931 and ’32 saw Whittle as a test pilot at the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment, RAF Felixstowe, where he also qualified on flying boats.  This work was by definition dangerous and Whittle had several close shaves.


Despite all of the rigorous demands posed by his flying activities he never lost sight of his real interest in aeronautical engineering and his inventions.  In 1932, and on the strong recommendation of hi Commanding Officer, he was elected for specialisation in engineering and posted to the Officers’ School of Engineering, RAF Henlow.  He completed the two year course in just eighteen months and gained a Higher National Diploma, with distinction, in all subjects except mechanical drawing.  Because of these exceptional results he was assigned to take the Mechanical Sciences Tripos at Cambridge University (Peterhouse).  In this same year his turbojet patent was granted (No.347206) and published in many countries – an astonishing fact which is indicative of the un-importance with which the Air Ministry treated his ideas.  With hindsight it is almost inconceivable that his patent did not attract a security classification which would have precluded, or at least slowed down, German pre-W.W.II research and development.  In the meantime he made many attempts to convince British industry of the validity, and enormity, of his ideas.  Sadly, and this is an all too common inventors lament, through a combination of ignorance, disinterest and apathy, no backers were found.


In 1935, while studying at Cambridge, Whittle had to let his original patent lapse – because of domestic financial commitments he just could not afford the £5 renewal fee – although he had filed subsequent patent applications relating to compressors.  At this time he was approached by two young ex-RAF Officers – R D Williams (who had been a fellow cadet at Cranwell) and J C Tinling – who proposed that they should try and raise the money to develop the jet engine.  They joined forces with a consulting engineer, M L Bramson, who had connections with an investment bank, O T Falk and Partners.  Whittle also used the services of another RAF contact, W E Johnson, who was a patent agent with F L Cleveland & Co.  Johnson drafted Whittle’s early patents (in Whittle’s name) before becoming a test pilot during the war.  To obtain the necessary funding, Bramson had prepared a formal report which was enthusiastic and wholly favourable and in March 1936 private capital was raised to form their fledgling company – Power Jets Ltd.  The Air Ministry offered no financial assistance and, to make things worse, they appointed an independent consultant – Dr W S Farren, Deputy Head of Aeronautical Science at Cambridge – who was openly hostile to Whittle’s ideas.


An agreement was made with British Thomson Houston (BTH) to manufacture a prototype test engine at their Rugby works.  Whittle and his team began to work despite the fact that the whole operation was running on a shoe-string – even utilising reclaimed scrap metal to manufacture components and working in less than perfect surroundings.  This was in stark contrast to Whittle’s German rival – Hans von Ohain – who enjoyed generous patronage for the aircraft manufacturer Heinkel.


It should be remembered that Whittle was a serving Officer and the Air Ministry was unwilling to prejudice his availability and therefore limited his time spent on the project.  However, Whittle now gained 1st Class honours in the Mechanical Sciences Tripos (he later expressed surprise as he had done so little work) and was granted a postgraduate year for research.  This gave him time to supervise the design and manufacture of the first test unit.  Despite all of the problems the Whittle Unit (WU) made its first test run on April 12th 1937 – although it worked this was an alarming event which had BTH employees running for cover due to the engine racing uncontrollably.  This limited success had Whittle placed on a Special Duty list, on loan to Power Jets as Honorary Chief Engineer.  At this time he was also promoted to Squadron Leader.


One would have expected that the Air Ministry would have awarded contracts to accelerate the program following this initial success.  This did not happen as it was now considered to be more important to bring the conventional RAF aircraft up to strength in response to the threat posed by the Luftwaffe.  It was not until 1939, with Whittle’s third experimental engine now showing considerable promise, that Sir Henry Tizard – Chairman of the Aeronautical Research Committee – recognised the possibilities.  Until now the project had been considered as long-term research.  Rather belatedly the Air Ministry instructed the Gloster aircraft company to build an experimental aeroplane (the E28/39) which was to be powered by the first flight engine (W1) supplied by Power Jets Ltd.


The first official test flight took place on the evening of May 15th 1941.  Although this gave Whittle and his team great satisfaction, this was tempered by the knowledge that the German Heinkel He178 had flown in August 1939 and the Italian Caproni-Campini in August 1940.  The marvellous opportunity to make Britain pre-eminent in the skies had been squandered.  However, an operational aircraft had now been commissioned and the twin-engine Meteor took to the air in 1944.  The Meteor did not participate in ait-to-air combat but on August 4th a German V1 flying bomb was shot down off the south-east coast of England – the first of many.  The Luftwaffe had their own operational Me262 (albeit with an unreliable engine) but surprisingly Hitler had ordered that the new jet was not to be used as a fighter – in spite of its massive superiority over anything else in the air.


Whittle was bedevilled by industrial and political machinations during this period.  The Meteor was to be powered by W.2 engines which were at the design and manufacture stage at Power Jets and BTH.  The Government was under pressure from the aircraft industry which now wanted to become involved in the production of jet engines – although the industry had shown no interest, or offered support, when Whittle and his team were struggling.  In a particularly disastrous move (which Whittle had warned would happen because the whole industry was ill prepared for an entirely new technology) Rover were selected to manufacture the W.2B.  Despite some creative engineering and good technical progress, Rover were not experienced in the aero industry and quickly fell behind schedule – relations with Whittle were also somewhat strained.  In 1943, Rolls-Royce had to take over the project, solve the air certification problems, and ‘cut metal’ to quickly produce the ‘Welland’ engine to power the Meteor 1.  Power Jets was nationalised in 1944 and later merged with the aircraft gas turbine section of the Royal Aircraft Establishment to form the National Gas Turbine Establishment.  The NTGE remit was limited to research and to assist the aircraft industry.  Because they were no longer able to design and develop engines, Whittle, and many leading members of his team, resigned.  During the war years all of the technology was shared with the Americans who were very quick to develop their own successful program.  In a move that now engenders incredulous disbelief, the incoming Government of 1946 gave a Rolls-Royce engine to the Soviet Union.  This led to the swift development of the MiG15 jet fighter which was, in its day, a superb machine.


The years of struggle imposed on Whittle began to take their toll.  Throughout the war years he had continued to be promoted within the RAF: Temporary Wing Commander, 1940; Temporary Group Captain, 1943; and Temporary Air Commodore, 1944.  He had also received other prestigious honours during this period.  Following his resignation from Power Jets he was appointed as an advisor to the Ministry of Supply and during this period he made extensive lecture tours in the USA and Europe.  Stress and strain contributed to a deterioration in health and in 1948 he retired from the RAF on medical grounds.  However, in the same year his achievement was finally recognised by a Knighthood from King George VI (the first Air Commodore to receive this accolade) and a payment of £100,000 from the Ministry of Supply on the recommendation of the Royal Commission.  This sum of money was substantial for its time but it should be remembered that Whittle, through a combination of duty and patriotism, had surrendered all of his lucrative patent rights to the Crown and give £47,000 worth of Power Jet shares to the ministry (later patents had been filed in the name of Power Jets – indeed F J Clevelend & Co had, at one time, a large security maintained room devoted solely to Power Jet cases).  One could suggest that this was paltry recompense for an inventor who single-handedly wrought such a profound effect on our world.  The financial reward that Whittle did receive was not a simple act of largesse.  Just after the war, His Majesty’s Government had sold the American civil jet production rights for $4 million (about £1 million at the time).


The second half of Whittle’s life saw him cast as an academic, engineering consultant, technical adviser and, of course, inventor.  He wrote two books during this time: an autobiography ‘Jet – The Story of a Pioneer’ (1953); and ‘Gas Turbine Aero-Thermodynamics’ (1981).  This second book is widely regarded as the definitive text book on the subject and clearly demonstrates his profound understanding of the mathematics and engineering concepts involved.  He worked extensively with the oil industry and invented the Turbo Drill, based on earlier turbo-engine patents.  This was successfully developed with Bristol Siddeley Engines and Rolls-Royce and allowed drilling engineers to ‘turn corners’ when sinking bore-holes.  Friends and colleagues attest that his mind stayed as sharp as a razor throughout his long life.  He was still working on designs for improved supersonic aircraft beyond his 80th birthday.


In 1976 his first marriage was dissolved (he had separated from Dorothy in 1952) and he married his second wife Hazel - an American air-stewardess - and immigrated to the USA.  Much has been made of his bitterness over the way he was treated and the fact that he turned his back on Britain in favour of America.  While it is true that he was angered and saddened by events, he was not bitter and was at pains to recognise the help and support he had received from some quarters – particularly the RAF.  The one thing that aggrieved him was the lack of recognition given to his colleagues at Power Jets.  He remained a frequent visitor to Britain and kept in close contact with the air industry.


Looking back there is much justification in saying that had Whittle been listened to, and supported, Britain could have stolen a march on the rest of the world.  A jet-fighter could have been ready for the Battle of Britain and who can say what effect this would have had.  Whittle was undeniably a genius and a remarkable man – like many inventors he was a maverick with a nature that sometimes flirted with eccentricity.  It was this spirit that sustained him through the now legendary battles he fought with the powers-that-be.  Although much of his life was a struggle, in later years he was buoyed up by the recognition of his achievements and the huge number of international awards and honours showered upon him.


Effectively, one man turned the air industry on its head and introduced a new high-tech industry.  This new industry developed at a very fast pace with the result that the Whittle inspired jet engine has powered all major aircraft since the 1950’s.  His legacy was to make the world a smaller and more accessible place to millions of people – very few can bequeath such a grandiose monument to their vision.

He decided on a career in the Royal Air Force but lack of money placed the RAF College at Cranwell out of his reach.  The only answer was an apprenticeship but he failed at the first attempt for physical reasons.  Being only five feet tall and of slight stature he could not meet the RAF’s strict medical and physical standards.  Lesser men would have accepted this but fifteen year old Whittle embarked on an intensive course of development exercises and managed to gain three inches in height and increased bulk.  By keeping quiet about his previous application, in 1923 he was accepted as an Aircraft Apprentice.

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