When Frank Whittle was born on June 1, 1907, the world speed record stood at 41.3 km/h. At the time of his death on August 8, 1996, it was reaching 3,529.6 km/h.
Countless technical advances enabled the paradigm shift in aircraft capability – but certainly the most significant was the invention of the turbojet engine, developed and tested by Whittle in the 1930s and 1940s.
The aerospace pioneer’s interest in engineering and aviation began at a young age. His father, Moses Whittle, was a mechanical engineer and owner of a small engineering business, and his workshop provided a vital source of hands-on experience.
In 1923 Whittle was accepted by RAF Cranwell to train as an aircraft fitter and rigger. Out of 600 apprentices, he was given one of five cadetships at RAF College, Cranwell in 1926. It was there that, at the age of 21, he wrote a thesis entitled “Future Developments in Aircraft Design”, in which he was considering speeds. over 500 mph (805 km/h) into the stratosphere – while the top speed of RAF fighters was 150 mph (241 km/h). His teacher Cranwell apparently admitted he didn’t understand much of it, according to IMechE records, but still gave him top marks.
Whittle concluded that the piston engines then in use would not be able to fly at the faster speeds and longer distances he desired. It was while training as a flight instructor at the Central Flying School that he first considered using a gas turbine to provide jet propulsion.
An Air Ministry gas turbine expert was reportedly unimpressed, and the Royal Aircraft Establishment described Whittle’s idea as impractical. Despite this setback, Whittle filed a patent on January 16, 1930, which the government refused to keep secret – after World War II copies were found in various laboratories in Germany.
After completing the Officers’ Engineering Course at Henlow, the RAF sent Whittle to Cambridge University to study mechanical science in 1934 – a very difficult thing to do,’ he said in the documentary Whittle – The Jet Pioneer.
Some of Whittle’s former colleagues interested General Enterprises in his idea. A new patent was obtained and OT Falk and Partners provided the financing. Power Jets Ltd was formed in January 1936, with Whittle as part-time honorary chief engineer.
An engine was originally built by Britain’s Thomson-Houston, but Whittle was unhappy and decided a complete rebuild was needed after a first trial in 1937. Assigned to the Special Tasks List and working on the engine at full-time, his efforts were rewarded with promising engine trials with speeds of up to 16,000 rpm in June 1939, according to FrankWhittle.co.uk.
The government eventually backed the turbojet, ordering a flight engine known as the W1 and allowing development of the follow-on W2. That summer the Air Ministry also signed a contract for an experimental aircraft, the Gloster/Whittle E.28/39. Christened the Pioneer, Britain’s first jet made its maiden flight on May 15, 1941.
During the year, General Motors was building Whittle engines in the United States. In 1942, Whittle was sent there to help develop the American engine.
Rolls-Royce’s involvement in the jet engine increased and the company eventually resumed production and development. A jet fighter entered service in 1944. Such was the impact of the invention that Winston Churchill apparently asked for “a thousand Whittles”, according to IMechE records.
In 1945, Air Commodore Whittle gave the first public address on the subject at the institution’s first James Clayton Lecture. It was so popular that it had to be repeated.
In 1948 Whittle was knighted and retired from the RAF due to ill health. He also received £100,000 from the government for his invention, which had already changed the course of history.
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