Sir Frank Whittle
1907 - 1996
The British Royal Air Force officer and engineer Sir Frank
Whittle invented the turbojet method of aircraft propulsion.
Whittle was born on June 1, 1907, in Coventry, England, the son
of a mechanical engineer. He joined the Royal Air Force as an
aircraft apprentice at Cranwell in 1923, where he underwent
three years of training as an aircraft mechanic. Then he entered
the R.A.F. College at Cranwell as an officer-cadet. Although he
was just 21 years old by the time he graduated in 1928, Whittle
was already focusing on ways to produce higher speeds and
greater altitude for the propellor-driven aircraft of the time.
The title of his final thesis, according to the magazine
Aviation Week & Space Technology, was Future Developments in
Aircraft Design. Its theme was a discussion of rocket propulsion
and gas turbine-driven propellors, and ways in which they could
be used as alternatives to the conventional piston engines then
After graduating from Cranwell Whittle became a fighter pilot
and was then posted to an instructor's course at the Central
Flying School. Here, despite day-to-day responsibilities, he
painstakingly designed his first turbojet.
Although sound in theory, Whittle's invention was in advance of
its time in its material demands, and the Air Ministry rejected
it. Nevertheless, he sought patent protection for his invention
in 1930 and tried to interest manufacturers in production. He
was granted a patent in 1932, but because of the Great
Depression he had little success in finding manufacturers.
This was frustrating, but he did not allow this disappointment
to interfere with his service career. He attended the Officers'
Engineering Course at Henlow (1932-1933) and Cambridge
University (1934-1937), where he completed his engineering
training while continuing to seek interested investors for his
In 1935, having found no factories interested in his engine, he
formed his own company together with two partners named Williams
and Tinling. Power Jets, Ltd. opened its doors in 1936 and
immediately took out further patents with financial backing from
O.T. Falk and Company.
By now the Royal Air Force was beginning to take Whittle's work
seriously enough to transfer him to the special-duty list,
enabling him to continue working on his engine. An experimental
version ran in the British Thomson-Houston works at Rugby in
April 1937, and by mid-1938 the feasibility of jet propulsion
had been established. After the outbreak of World War II,
development of the engine became dependent on Air Ministry
finance. However, progress remained slow because of an ambiguous
attitude by civil servants toward the unconventional
organization of Power Jets, Ltd.
By April 1941 the Gloster Aircraft Company had completed an
experimental airframe, and this was fitted with an early Whittle
engine for taxiing trials. After an airworthy engine had been
fitted, the Gloster-Whittle E28/39 made its first test flight on
May 15, 1941.
Meanwhile, Whittle did not realize that he had a competitor for
his invention in Nazi Germany. Hans von Ohain had not only
produced a turbojet, but had also flown it in a Heinkel plane as
early as 1939. But though his engine was the first to fly, von
Ohain did not have the last word.
Whittle had been generous with his research, sharing his
technology with both the British Rolls Royce and the American
General Electric Company. His foresight led to renewed interest
in both the design of production engines and the airplane which
was to become the Gloster Meteor twin-engine jet fighter. In the
U.S. collaboration on the development of jet engines with the
General Electric Company and the Bell Aircraft Corporation began
in September 1941, while Britain was not far behind, putting its
Meteor aircraft powered by Rolls-Royce "Welland" into service by
In 1946 Prime Minister Clement Attlee's Labour government
nationalized Whittle's Power Jets company and forced it to limit
its activities to components research. Angrily, Whittle and
several co-workers resigned from the company, following up, two
years later, with his retirement from the R.A.F. with the rank
of Air Commodore, an award of 100,000 pounds, and a knighthood.
In 1976 after several mental breakdowns, Sir Frank emigrated to
the U.S. permanently to marry a retired U.S. Navy nurse named
Hazel Hall and to take an appointment as a visiting research
professor of Aerospace Engineering in the Division of
Engineering and Weapons at the U.S. Naval Academy, in Annapolis,
Maryland. He was deep into new research in 1978 when the Federal
Aviation Administration decided to honor him by giving him the
Extraordinary Service Award, the highest accolade the office can
bestow. It was a shining moment in an otherwise quiet
appointment, which ended in September 1979.
Whittle was now an elderly man, but he had no intention of
fading quietly from view. In 1987 Smithsonian Institution Press
published his autobiography, Whittle, The True Story which, in a
collaboration with John Golley, gave his personal account of the
jet engine's development and how it transformed aeronautical
Whittle then lived out of the limelight until October 1993, when
an article on his achievements appeared in Aviation Week & Space
Technology. The article's many inaccuracies infuriated him.
Within a month of the magazine's appearance, he presented the
editor with a list of 11 corrections, worded with enough
military curtness to stress that the 86-year-old author had lost
neither his formidable intellect nor his prodigious memory.
Although Whittle lived until January, 1996, his letter was his
last appearance in print.
Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle, OM, KBE, FRS, Hon FRAeS (1 June
1907–9 August 1996) was a British Royal Air Force officer and is
seen as the father of jet propulsion. By the end of the war,
Whittle's efforts resulted in engines that would lead the world
in performance through the end of the decade. Whittle and Hans
von Ohain met after the war and initially Whittle was angry with
him as he felt Ohain had stolen his ideas. Ohain eventually
convinced him that his work was independent and after that point
the two became good friends.
Whittle was born in a terraced house in Earlsdon, Coventry,
England, United Kingdom on June 1, 1907, the son of a mechanic.
When Whittle was age 9 years, the family moved to the nearby
town of Leamington Spa, where his father started an engineering
factory. He left Leamington College in 1923 to join the RAF.
Through his early days as an Aircraft apprentice (first at RAF
Cranwell but latterly at RAF Halton) he maintained his interest
in the Model Aircraft Society where he built replicas, the
quality of which attracted the eye of his commanding officer,
who also felt that Whittle was a mathematical genius.
He was so impressed that he recommended Whittle for the Officer
Training College at Cranwell in Lincolnshire in 1926, a rarity
for a "commoner" in what was still a very class-based military
structure. For Whittle this was the chance of a lifetime, not
only to enter the officer corps but also because the training
included flying lessons. Of the few apprentices that were
accepted, only about one percent completed the course. Whittle
was the exception to the rule, graduating in 1928 at the age of
21, ranked second in his class in academics and an "Exceptional
to Above Average" pilot.
Another requirement of the course was that each student had to
produce a thesis for graduation. Whittle decided to write his
thesis on future developments in aircraft design, notably
high-speed flight at high altitudes and speeds over 500 mph (800
km/h). He showed that incremental improvements in existing
propeller engines were unlikely to make such flight routine.
Instead he described what is today referred to as a motorjet, a
motor using a conventional piston engine to provide compressed
air to a combustion chamber whose exhaust was used directly for
thrust – essentially an afterburner attached to a propeller
engine. The design was not a new one, it had been talked about
for some time in the industry but Whittle's interest was to
demonstrate that at increased altitudes the lower outside air
pressure would increase its efficiency. For long-range flight,
using an Atlantic-crossing mailplane as his example, the engine
would spend most of its time at high altitude and thus could
outperform a conventional powerplant.
Development of the jet engine
Whittle continued working on the motorjet principle after his
thesis work and eventually abandoned it when further
calculations showed it would weigh as much as a conventional
engine of the same thrust. While thinking about the idea he
thought "Why not substitute a turbine for the piston engine?"
Instead of using a piston engine to provide the compressed air
for the burner, a turbine could be used to extract some power
from the exhaust and power a compressor, like those used for
superchargers. The leftover exhaust thrust would power the
Earlier, in July 1926, A. A. Griffith published a paper on
compressors and turbines, which he had been studying at the RAE.
He showed that such designs up to this point had been flying
"stalled", and that by making the compressor blades into an
aerofoil shape, their efficiency could be dramatically improved.
The paper went on to describe how the increased efficiency of
these sorts of compressors and turbines would allow a jet engine
to be produced, although he felt the idea was impractical, and
instead suggested using the power as a turboprop. At the time
most superchargers used a centrifugal compressor, so there was
limited interest in the paper.
In late 1929 Whittle sent his concept to the Air Ministry to see
if it would be any interest. With little knowledge of the topic
they turned to the only other person who had written on the
subject and passed the paper on to Griffith. Griffith appears to
have been convinced that Whittle's "simple" design could never
achieve the sorts of efficiencies needed for a practical engine.
After pointing out an error in one of Whittle's calculations, he
went on to comment that the centrifugal design would be too
large for aircraft use and that using the jet directly for power
would be rather inefficient. The RAF returned comment to
Whittle, where they referred to the design as "impracticable."
Others in the RAF were not so sure. In particular Johnny Johnson
convinced him to patent the idea in January 1930. Since the RAF
was not interested in the concept they did not declare it
secret, which meant that Whittle was able to retain the rights
to the idea, which would have otherwise been the property of the
RAF. This rejection would later turn out to be a stroke of luck.
Meanwhile Whittle moved onto the Officers' Engineering Course at
RAF Henlow, Bedfordshire in 1932 and then to Peterhouse,
Cambridge in 1934, graduating in 1936 with a First in the
Mechanical Sciences Tripos.
Whittle's jet engine patent lapsed in 1935 because he could not
afford the renewal fee of £5. Soon after this he was approached
by two ex-RAF men, Rolf Dudley-Williams and J. Tinling, who
wanted to expand the development of his engine. The three
incorporated as Power Jets Ltd. in 1936 with a bank loan of
£2,000. Work was started on an experimental engine at a factory
in Rugby, Warwickshire belonging to British Thomson-Houston, a
steam turbine company. The RAF still saw no value in the effort
but although Whittle was still a pilot they placed him on the
Special Duty List and agreed to allow him to work on the design
as long as it took no more than six hours a week.
Funding development of the first engine, known as the WU
(Whittle Unit) was a serious problem. Although privately funded,
most potential investors shied from a project that appeared to
be semi-secret yet had no RAF (Royal Air Force) backing.
Something seemed to be amiss; if the project was going to work,
why didn't the RAF fund it? Once again it seemed not everyone
was so sceptical of Whittle's ideas and in October 1936 Henry
Tizard, the rector of Imperial College London and chairman of
the Aeronautical Research Committee, sent details of Whittle's
engine to Griffith once again. Griffith had by this time started
construction of his own engine design; perhaps in order to avoid
tainting his efforts, he returned a much more positive review.
He remained highly critical of some features, notably the use of
jet thrust, seemingly ignoring the fact that its performance at
high speed and altitude was the crucial aspect of the programme.
Even with these problems Power Jets were able to complete the
WU, which ran successfully on April 12, 1937. Tizard pronounced
it "streets ahead" of any other advanced engine he had seen and
managed to interest the Air Ministry enough to fund development
with a contract for £6,000 to develop a flyable version.
Nevertheless it was a year before all of the funds were
available, greatly delaying development.
Meanwhile testing continued with the WU, which showed an
alarming tendency to race out of control. Due to the dangerous
nature of the work being carried out, in 1938 development was
largely moved from Rugby to the BTH's semi-disused Ladywood
foundry at nearby Lutterworth in Leicestershire. There was a
successful run of the WU there in March 1938. Although the
potential of the engine was obvious, the Air Ministry remained
focused on the production of piston engine designs.
All of these delays and the lack of funding slowed the project.
In Germany, Hans von Ohain had started work on a prototype in
1935 and had by this point passed the prototype stage and was
building the first flyable design, the Heinkel HeS 3. There is
little reason to believe that Whittle's efforts would not have
been at the same level or more advanced had the Air Ministry
taken a greater interest in the design. When the war started in
September 1939, Power Jets had a payroll of only 10 and
Griffith's efforts at the RAE and Metropolitan Vickers were
The stress of the continual on-again-off-again development and
problems with the engine had a serious toll on Whittle. He
suffered from stress-related ailments such as eczema and heart
palpitations, while his weight dropped to 9 stone (126 pounds/57
kg). In order to keep to his sixteen-hour workdays, he sniffed
Benzedrine during the day and then took tranquilizers and
sleeping pills at night to offset the effects and allow him to
sleep. Over this period he became irritable and developed an
Following the outbreak of World War II the Air Ministry changed
priorities and once again looked at the various advanced
projects underway. By 1939, Power Jets could barely afford to
keep the lights on when yet another visit was made by Air
Ministry personnel. This time Whittle was able to run the WU at
high power for 20 minutes without any difficulty. One of the
members of the team was the Director of Scientific Research, H.
E. Wimperis, who walked out of the demonstration utterly
convinced of the importance of the project.
A contract for full-scale development was immediately sent to
Power Jets, along with a number of tenders to various companies
to set up production lines for up to 3,000 engines a month in
1942. Power Jets had no manufacturing capability, so the Air
Ministry offered shared production and development contracts
with BTH, Vauxhall and Rover. However, the contract was
eventually taken up by Rover only. They also sent out a contract
for a simple airframe to carry the engine, which was quickly
taken up by Gloster.
Whittle had already studied the problem of turning the massive
WU into a flyable design and with the new contract work started
in earnest on the "Whittle Supercharger Type W.1." However,
Rover was unable to deliver the W.1 production engine before
Gloster's experimental airframe was ready. Whittle then cobbled
together an engine built from various test parts and called it
the W.1X (the X standing for experimental), which ran for the
first time on December 14 1940. This engine powered the Gloster
E.28/39 for taxi testing in Gloster, near the factory, when it
took to the air for two or three short hops of several hundred
yards and about 6 foot from the ground on April 7 1941.
Film of the early secret E.28 tests exists. It illustrates the
vivid memories of ordinary folk living nearby who were
interviewed by the BBC a decade later. They recall their
amazement that an aeroplane could fly with no propellers and the
questions is raised in local pubs at the time: how could it
possibly work? Did the mystery aircraft somehow suck itself
through the air like a supercharged vacuum cleaner? It was
difficult for laypeople still used to conventional aircraft to
imagine that jet propulsion could work.
The "full" W.1 of 3.8 kN (850 lbf) thrust ran on April 12, 1941
and on May 15, 1941 the W.1-powered E.28/39 took off from
Cranwell at 7.40 pm, flying for seventeen minutes and reaching a
maximum speed of around 545 km/h (340 mph). Within days it was
reaching 600 km/h (370 mph) at 7,600 metres, exceeding the
performance of the contemporary Spitfires, astounding
considering this was the first such engine. Success of the
design was now evident to all and nearly every engine company in
Britain started their own crash efforts to catch up with Power
A newer design known as the W.2 was then started. Like the W.1
it featured a "reverse flow" design of the burners, in which the
heated air from the flame cans was piped back towards the front
of the engine before entering the turbine area. This allowed the
engine to be "folded", with the flame cans lying around the
turbine area, and therefore making for a shorter engine.
Power Jets also spent some time in May 1940 drawing up the W.2Y,
a similar design with a "straight through" airflow that resulted
in a longer engine and (more critically) driveshaft but with a
somewhat simpler layout. In order to reduce the weight of the
driveshaft as much as possible, the W.2Y used a large
cylindrical shaft almost as large as the turbine disk, "necked
down" at either end where it connected to the turbine and
The Air Ministry was eager to obtain an operational jet aircraft
and authorised BTH to press ahead with a twin-engined jet
interceptor, which would evolve into the Gloster Meteor. The
Meteor was intended to use either the W.2 or the similar Halford
H.1 (later named "Goblin") but de Havilland later decided to
keep all the Halfords for their design, the de Havilland
In 1941 Rover set up a new laboratory for Whittle's team along
with a production line at their disused Barnoldswick factory but
they also set up a parallel effort with their own engineers at
Waterloo Mill, Clitheroe. Here Adrian Lombard attempted to
develop the W.2 into a production quality design, dispensing
with Whittle's "reverse flow" burners and developing a longer
but simpler "straight-through" engine instead. Work at
Barnoldswick continued on Whittle's original design, now known
as the W.2B/23, while Lombard's new design became the W.2B/26.
Whittle was upset by this course of events, feeling that all
work should concentrate on producing a single design as soon as
By late 1941 it was obvious to all that the arrangement between
Power Jets and Rover was not working. Whittle was frustrated by
Rover's inability to deliver production-quality parts, as well
as with their "we know better than you" attitude and became
increasingly vocal. Rover was losing interest in the project
after the delays and constant harassment from Power Jets.
In 1940, Stanley Hooker of Rolls-Royce had met with Whittle and
later introduced him to Rolls' CEO, Ernest Hives. Hooker led
Rolls' supercharger division, which was naturally suited to jet
engine work. Hives agreed to supply key parts to help the
project and it was Rolls engineers who helped solve the surging
problems seen in the early engines. In early 1942 Whittle
contracted Rolls for six engines as well, known as the WR.1,
identical to the existing W.1.
The problems at Rover became a "public secret" and eventually
Spencer Wilkes of Rover met with Hives and Hooker at the Swan
and Royal pub near the Barnoldswick factory. They decided to
trade the jet factory at Barnoldswick for Rolls' tank engine
factory in Nottingham. A handshake sealed the deal. The handover
took place on January 1 1943, although the official date was
later. Rolls soon closed Rover's parallel plant at Clitheroe,
although they continued development of the W.2B/26 that had been
Testing and production was immediately stepped up. In December
Rover had tested the W.2B for a total of 37 hours but within the
next month Rolls-Royce tested it for 390 hours. The W.2B passed
its first 100 hour test at full performance of 725 kgf (7.11 kN)
on May 7 1943. The prototype Meteor airframe was already
complete and took to the air on June 12 1943. Production
versions started rolling off the line in October, first known as
the W.2B/23, then the RB.23 (for Rolls-Barnoldswick) and
eventually the Rolls-Royce Welland. Barnoldswick was too small
for full-scale production and turned back into a pure research
facility under Hooker, while a new factory was set up in
Newcastle-under-Lyme. The W.2B/26, as the Rolls-Royce Derwent,
opened the new line and soon replaced the Welland, allowing the
production lines at Barnoldswick to shut down in late 1944.
Despite lengthy delays (Hitler initially demanded the Me 262 be
a bomber), the Luftwaffe beat the British efforts into the air
by nine months, which in turn, had also been delayed at Rover.
Since their German counterparts were forced to deal with a
serious shortage of high temperature alloys, the Junker engines
(axial-flow designed by Dr. Anselm Franz) would typically last
10-25 hours (longer with an experienced pilot) and sometimes
exploded on their first startup. Thus the engines that powered
the Meteor were much more reliable by comparison. The equivalent
British engine would run for 150 hours between overhauls and had
twice the power-to-weight ratio and half the specific fuel
consumption. By the end of the war every major engine company in
Britain was working on jet designs based on the Whittle pattern
or licensed outright. The Korean war saw US F-86 Sabres using an
axial flow engine inspired by Dr. Franz's design doing battle
with Soviet made MiG-15s using a copy of the Rolls-Royce Nene
engine. By the late 1950s though, most engines powering US and
USSR fighters were no longer descended from Whittle's work but
used rather, engines based on the axial flow design.
With the W.2 proceeding smoothly, Whittle was sent to Boston,
Massachusetts in mid-1942 to help the General Electric jet
programme. GE, the primary supplier of turbochargers in the US,
was well suited to quickly starting jet production. A
combination of the W.2B design and a simple airframe from Bell
Aircraft flew in autumn of 1942 as the Bell XP-59A Airacomet.
Whittle's developments at Power Jets continued, resulting in the
improved W.2/500 and later the W.2/700. Both were fitted for
testing on Meteors, the W.2/700 later being fitted with an
afterburner ("reheat" in British terminology), as well as
experimental water injection to cool the engine and allow for
higher power settings without melting the turbine. Whittle also
turned his attention to the axial-flow championed by Griffith,
designing the L.R.1. Other developments included the use of fans
to provide more mass-flow, either at the front of the engine as
in a modern turbofan or at the rear, which is much less common
but somewhat simpler.
Whittle's work had caused a minor revolution within the British
engine manufacturing industry and even before the E.28/39 flew
most companies had set up their own research efforts. In 1939,
Metropolitan-Vickers set up a project to develop an axial-flow
design as a turboprop but later re-engineered the design as a
pure jet known as the Metrovick F.2. Rolls-Royce had already
copied the W.1 to produce the low-rated WR.1 but later stopped
work on this project after taking over Rover's efforts. de
Havilland started a jet fighter project in 1941, the Spider
Crab—later called Vampire—along with their own engine to power
it: Frank Halford's Goblin (Halford H.1). Armstrong Siddeley
also developed an axial-flow design, the ASX but reversed
Vickers' thinking and later modified it into a turboprop
instead, the Python.
With practically every engine company producing their own
designs, Power Jets was no longer able to generate realistic
income. In April 1944 Power Jets was nationalised, becoming the
National Gas Turbine Establishment at the original Ladywood
experimental site. In 1946 it was reorganised with the RAE
divisions joining them.
After the War
Whittle, disenfranchised, quit what was left of Power Jets in
1948. Long a socialist, his experiences with nationalisation
changed his mind and he later campaigned for the Conservative
Party (especially for his friend Dudley Williams, who was
Managing Director of Power Jets and became Conservative Member
of Parliament for Exeter. He also retired from the RAF,
complaining of ill health, leaving with the rank of Air
Commodore. Shortly afterwards he received £100,000 from the
Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, partly to pay him for
turning over all of his shares of Power Jets when it was
nationalised. He was made a Knight of the Order of the British
Empire (KBE) in that same year.
He soon joined BOAC as a technical advisor on aircraft gas
turbines. He travelled extensively over the next few years,
viewing jet engine developments in USA, Canada, Africa, Asia and
the Middle East. He left BOAC in 1952 and spent the next year
working on a biography, Jet: The Story of a Pioneer. He was
awarded the Royal Society of Arts' Albert Medal that year.
Returning to work in 1953, he accepted a position as a
Mechanical Engineering Specialist in one of Shell Oil's
subsidiaries. Here he developed a new type of drill that was
self-powered by a turbine running on the mud pumped into the
hole that was used as a lubricant during drilling. Normally a
well is drilled by attaching rigid sections of pipe together and
powering the cutting head by spinning the pipe but Whittle's
design meant that the drill had no strong mechanical connection
to the head frame, allowing for much lighter piping to be used.
He gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1954 on the
The Story of Petroleum.
Whittle left Shell in 1957 but the project was picked up in 1961
by Bristol Siddeley Engines, who set up Bristol Siddeley Whittle
Tools to further develop the concept. In 1966 Rolls Royce
purchased Bristol Siddeley but the financial pressures and
eventual bankruptcy due to cost overruns of the RB211 project
led to the slow wind-down and eventual disappearance of
Whittle's "turbo-drill". The design would eventually appear only
in the late 1990s, when it was combined with continuous coiled
pipe to allow uninterrupted drilling at any angle. The
"continuous-coil drilling" can drill straight down into a pocket
of oil and then sideways through the pocket to allow the oil to
flow out faster.
In 1976 Whittle emigrated to the US and the next year he
accepted the position of NAVAIR Research Professor at the US
Naval Academy Annapolis. His research concentrated on the
boundary layer before his professorship became part-time from
1978 to 1979. The part time post enabled him to write a textbook
on gas turbine thermodynamics. It was at this time that he met
von Ohain, who was working at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
At first upset because he believed von Ohain had developed his
engine after seeing Whittle's patent, he eventually became
convinced that von Ohain's development was his own. The two
became good friends and often toured the US giving talks
together. In 1991 von Ohain and Whittle were awarded the Charles
Stark Draper Prize for their work on turbojet engines.
Frank Whittle married Dorothy Lee in May 1930 and they had two
sons. While at Cranwell he lodged in a bungalow at Dorrington.
The marriage was dissolved in 1976 and Whittle re-married to
Hazel Hall. He died on 8 August, 1996 of lung cancer, at his
home in Columbia, Maryland, USA. He was cremated in America and
his ashes were flown to England and they were placed in a
memorial in a church in Cranwell.
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