Frank Whittle The Turbojet Pioneer and Genius Of The Jet Revolution
The story of Frank Whittle, RAF pilot, mathematician of genius, inventor of the jet engine and British hero. In 1929, a twenty-two-year-old maverick named Frank Whittle – a self-taught aeronautical obsessive and risk-takingly brilliant RAF pilot – presented a blueprint for a revolutionary, jet-powered aircraft engine to the Air Ministry. His idea had the potential to change the course of history, but it was summarily rejected. Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle, OM, KBE, CB, FRS, FRAeS (1 June 1907 – 8 August 1996) was an English engineer, inventor and Royal Air Force (RAF) air officer. He is credited with inventing the turbojet engine.
A patent was submitted by Maxime Guillaume in 1921 for a similar invention which was technically unfeasible at the time. Whittle’s jet engines were developed some years earlier than those of Germany’s Hans von Ohain, who designed the first-to-fly (but never operational) turbojet engine.
Whittle demonstrated an aptitude for engineering and an interest in flying from an early age. At first he was turned down by the RAF but, determined to join the force, he overcame his physical limitations and was accepted and sent to No. 2 School of Technical Training to join No 1 Squadron of Cranwell Aircraft Apprentices. He was taught the theory of aircraft engines and gained practical experience in the engineering workshops. His academic and practical abilities as an Aircraft Apprentice earned him a place on the officer training course at Cranwell. He excelled in his studies and became an accomplished pilot. While writing his thesis he formulated the fundamental concepts that led to the creation of the turbojet engine, taking out a patent on his design in 1930. His performance on an officers’ engineering course earned him a place on a further course at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he graduated with a First.
Without Air Ministry support, he and two retired RAF servicemen formed Power Jets Ltd to build his engine with assistance from the firm of British Thomson-Houston. Despite limited funding, a prototype was created, which first ran in 1937. Official interest was forthcoming following this success, with contracts being placed to develop further engines, but the continuing stress seriously affected Whittle’s health, eventually resulting in a nervous breakdown in 1940. In 1944 when Power Jets was nationalised he again suffered a nervous breakdown, and resigned from the board in 1946.
In 1948, Whittle retired from the RAF and received a knighthood. He joined BOAC as a technical advisor before working as an engineering specialist with Shell, followed by a position with Bristol Aero Engines. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1976 he accepted the position of NAVAIR Research Professor at the United States Naval Academy from 1977 to 1979. In August 1996, Whittle died of lung cancer at his home in Columbia, Maryland. In 2002, Whittle was ranked number 42 in the BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.
Whittle was born in a terraced house in Newcombe Road, Earlsdon, Coventry, England, on 1 June 1907, the eldest son of Moses Whittle and Sara Alice Garlick. When he was nine years old, the family moved to the nearby town of Royal Leamington Spa where his father, a highly inventive practical engineer and mechanic, purchased the Leamington Valve and Piston Ring Company, which comprised a few lathes and other tools and a single-cylinder gas engine, on which Whittle became an expert. Whittle developed a rebellious and adventurous streak, together with an early interest in aviation.
After two years attending Milverton School, Whittle won a scholarship to a secondary school which in due course became Leamington College for Boys, but when his father’s business faltered there was not enough money to keep him there. He quickly developed practical engineering skills while helping in his father’s workshop, and being an enthusiastic reader spent much of his spare time in the Leamington reference library, reading about astronomy, engineering, turbines, and the theory of flight. At the age of 15, determined to be a pilot, Whittle applied to join the RAF.
In January 1923, having passed the RAF entrance examination with a high mark, Whittle reported to RAF Halton as an Aircraft Apprentice. He lasted only two days: just five feet tall and with a small chest measurement, he failed the medical. He then put himself through a vigorous training programme and special diet devised by a physical training instructor at Halton to build up his physique, only to fail again six months later, when he was told that he could not be given a second chance, despite having added three inches to his height and chest Undeterred, he applied again under an assumed name and presented himself as a candidate at the No 2 School of Technical Training RAF Cranwell.
ED: If you wish to watch the full documentary it runs for 1:10 on YouTube the link is below.