19 March 2002
BIRTH OF JET ENGINE
DESCRIBED BY PIONEER'S SON
Ian Whittle, son of Sir Frank
The local branch of the Aircrew Association at their March meeting were treated
by Ian Whittle, one of their own members, to a firsthand account of all the
events leading up to his famous father Frank’s development of the first
successful jet engine, despite a marked lack of interest in his ideas by the
Air Ministry before the war.
Frank Whittle was born in 1907 from poor parents, but decided at the age of
only 8 that he wanted to become a pilot. In 1918 he won a scholarship to
Leamington College, and studied anything to do with aeronautics in his spare
time. He came excited by a book about steam turbines, and helped his father
with mechanical engineering in his workshop.
In 1923 he joined the RAF as a boy entrant, as an apprentice at Cranwell, where
he passed out as No. 6 out of all cadets in his year. He then became a flying
cadet at the RAF College, and passed out above average, and exceptional at
flying. In 1926 he was enrolled in the Royal Air Force Academy. During his
subsequent squadron service, and whilst at the Central Flying School training
as an instructor he was still thinking about the possible use of turbines in
aviation, and in 1929, having calculated that a turbojet was better than a
turboprop, he produced the first viable design for a turbojet engine,
concentrating on known technology, and using a centrifugal compressor.
His Station Commander, a Group Captain, was sufficiently impressed with his
radical thinking to get him to put his ideas to the Air Ministry. After hearing
him out, they referred him to Dr A A Griffith who had been working at the RAE
for six years trying to develop a turboprop engine, using axial flow
compressors, without success, and who therefore turned his proposal down.
Still believing in his own ideas, Frank Whittle applied for a patent for his
design, whilst working as a test pilot on somewhat hair-raising experiments on
ditching aircraft fitted with a fixed undercarriage, of which Ian still had,
and showed, a rare film clip.
First ever patent for a gas turbine was by John Barber in 1791, but not a
practical proposition for aviation!
In 1931, his patent was published in Sweden, France, and Germany, where work on
the development of jet propulsion was actively taken up in secret. Sadly,
Frank’s patent expired in 1934, because he couldn’t afford to renew it.
The first proof of concept Whittle engine
From 1934-36 the RAF sent Frank to Cambridge University as a senior student.
Whilst there, he had an offer to finance the development of his engine design,
and so in 1936 Power Jets was formed and practical work began, leading to the
first Whittle unit, using a centrifugal compressor, which ran on 1st April
It was subsequently discovered that the first 6 minute flight of a Heinkel
178 turbojet aircraft (which only ever flew twice) took place in Germany in
1939; but in the UK two Gloster E 29/39 aircraft were built to take the Whittle
W1 unit, which first flew on May 15th 1941 at Cranwell, with a duration of 17
minutes. (At that time, the time between engine overhaul was 10 hours.)
In 1941, the latest development, the Whittle 1X was sent to the USA; and after
the war, Rolls Royce sold the Derwent and the Nene to the USSR - so Frank
Whittle’s invention became the basis of all world jet propulsion technology
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