The British Royal Air Force officer and engineer Sir Frank Whittle (1907-1996) invented the turbojet method of aircraft propulsion.
Frank 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 available.
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 engines.
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 May 1944.
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 coworkers 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 design.
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.
Further Reading on Sir Frank Whittle
Whittle's account of his development of the jet engine is in his Jet: The Story of a Pioneer (1953). Briefer accounts appear in Egon Larsen, Men Who Changed the World: Stories of Invention and Discovery (1952); James Gerald Crowther, Six Great Inventors (1954); and Patrick Pringle, Great Discoveries in Modern Science (1955). General background works include Charles H. Gibbs-Smith, The Aeroplane: An Historical Survey of Its Origins and Development (1960); Oliver Stewart, Aviation: The Creative Ideas (1966), which devotes a chapter to Whittle; and Ronald Miller and David Sawers, The Technical Development of Modern Aviation (1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Air & Space, October/November, 1993; December, 1992; January, 1993.
Annapolis Evening Capitol, October 19, 1978.
Aviation Week & Space Technology, August 19, 1996.
Whittle, Frank, and John Golley, Whittle, the True Story, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.