Frank Whittle (1907-1996)
Frank Whittle was born near Coventry on 1 June 1907 In 1923 Whittle was accepted by RAF Cranwell to train as an aircraft fitter and rigger. During his three year apprenticeship, he was a keen member of the Model Aircraft Society. In 1926, out of six hundred apprenticeships, he was awarded one of only five cadetships, and joined the RAF College at Cranwell as a Flight Cadet. It was here that, at the age of 21, he wrote a thesis entitled ‘Future Developments in Aircraft Design’, in which he envisaged speeds of over 500mph in the stratosphere. This was at a time where the maximum speed of RAF fighters was 150mph.
In 1928, Whittle joined the No 111 Fighter Squadron, and spent just over a year there before being posted to the Central Flying School as a pupil on the 30th Flying Instructors’ Course. During his time here, he continued to work on his ideas for a high-altitude high-speed aeroplane, and it was at this time that he first considered using a gas turbine to provide jet propulsion. His earlier thesis had only considered rocket propulsion and a gas turbine driving a propeller. With support from his Commandant, Group Captain Baldwin, Whittle’s ideas were brought to the attention of the Air Ministry, and a meeting arranged with Dr. A. A. Griffith, who was interested in gas turbines for driving propellers. Despite the promise shown in Whittle’s ideas, Griffiths was unimpressed. The Air Ministry rejected Whittle’s proposals and denied him funding. Despite this setback, and with the support of Flying Officer W. E. P. Johnson, Whittle filed a patent on 16 January 1930. As the Air Ministry showed no interest, it was not placed on the secret list.
Once he had completed the officers’ engineering course at Henlow, the RAF sent him to Cambridge University, where he spent most of his time working on his engine project. In the middle of his two year course, Whittle received word from one of his former RAF colleagues, Rolf Dudley Williams, who wrote to say that he had interested a ‘big noise’ in the engineering firm General Enterprises Ltd. in Whittle’s ideas. After a meeting to discuss the project, they agreed to cover the expenses of patents and raising money for research, and to act as Whittle’s agents. Although by this time the original patent had lapsed, a new one was obtained by patenting a series of improvements to the original specification. Eventually a firm of investment bankers, O.T. Falk and Partners, became interested in the project and funding became forthcoming. On 27 January 1936, an agreement was signed between Falk & Partners, the Air Council, Williams and Tinling, and Whittle, under the terms of which a company, Power Jets Limited, was formed to exploit the turbojet engine. Whittle was permitted by the Air Ministry to act as Honorary Chief Engineer and Technical Consultant for a period of five years, although this was to be on a strictly part-time basis; he needed the permission of the President of the Air Council to work for the company for more than six hours a week.
The experimental engine was to be constructed by the British Thomson-Houston Company. Although it was not intended for flight purposes, Whittle did have a target flight in mind; powering a small 500mph mailplane, he hoped it would carry 500 lb of mail across the Atlantic in six hours. Although initially Whittle and his colleagues had intended to built and test all the engine components separately, this proved much too costly, and due to financial restraints, they had to build the complete engine in one go. The first test run of the engine was carried out on 12th April 1937. Although the engine ran, Whittle was not satisfied with its performance, and despite working on many modifications, came to the conclusion that a major reconstruction of the engine was necessary. Funding was eventually obtained, after some difficulty, and Whittle was posted to the Special Duty List. This meant that work on the engine was now his official fulltime employment.
In the summer of 1939, an Air Ministry contract was signed for a flight engine, the W.1, and an experimental aircraft – the Gloster/Whittle E.28/39, Britain’s first jet. Whittle was also assured that, even if war were to break out, the Air Ministry wanted the work to continue, and that Whittle’s position on the Special Duty List was secure. The E.28/39 made its maiden flight on 15 May 1941, and trials continued for twelve days. During this year, Rolls Royce began making turbine blades, gearcases and other components for the programme. Within the year, General Motors was constructing Whittle engines in the US. In 1942, Whittle was sent there to do whatever he could to help with the American development of the engine.
Rolls Royce’s involvement with the jet engine grew, and eventually the firm took over its production and development. Jet fighter aircraft finally entered service in 1944, and by the end of the war, Power Jets had been taken over by the government. Whittle handed over his shares without receiving any payment, stating that he did not believe a serving officer should benefit commercially. In 1945, Air Commodore Whittle delivered the first James Clayton Lecture at the IMechE. This was the first public address on the subject, and was so popular that it had to be repeated. In 1948 he was knighted, and retired from the RAF, due to ill health, with the rank of Air Commodore. He was also awarded £100,000 by the government for his invention.
In the 1950s, he planned Comet jetliner operations for BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation), and during the 1960s he developed the Turbodrill for drilling through the earth’s crust as Technical Advisor to Bristol Siddeley Engines (later Rolls Royce). These helped to open up the North Sea for oil exploration. In 1976 he settled in America and was a member of the Faculty of the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.
Later, in the 1980s, he worked on Super Concorde designs, which would have been capable of 2500 mph, and aimed at supersonic flights to Hong Kong in three and a half hours.