ACA Woking News by Paul Holden, PRO

19 March 2002


Ian Whittle, son of Sir Frank
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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.

Whittle's ditching
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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!
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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
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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 1937.

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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