Sir Frank Whittle

views updated Jun 11 2018

Sir Frank Whittle

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

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 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. □

Sir Frank Whittle

views updated Jun 11 2018

Sir Frank Whittle


English Aviation Engineer

Sir Frank Whittle was responsible for one of the most important inventions to come out of World War II—a machine that, like the computer, arrived on the scene late and only came to prominence in the postwar years: the jet engine. It is a distinction Whittle shares with someone he never worked with, German engineer Hans von Ohain (1911-1988), who simultaneously built a jet engine for the German war effort.

Whittle was born in Coventry, England, on June 1, 1907. His father, a machinist, was also an inventor, and in 1916 the elder Whittle went into business for himself as director of the Leamington Valve and Piston Ring Company. His young son helped out at the factory, where he gained considerable experience with the mechanics of machinery.

Young Frank found little to capture his attention in school, where the subjects that most interested him—astronomy, engineering, and other sciences—were not on the curriculum. In secondary school he became intrigued with aeronautics, and after graduation this led to his joining the Royal Air Force (RAF). Because he was only five feet tall, the RAF very nearly refused to accept Whittle, but such was his record of service that after three years of rigging aircraft, he was accepted to the RAF College at Cramwell as a cadet. During his off time, he participated in the Model Aircraft Society, which he later credited with greatly expanding his knowledge of flying.

After he joined the 111 Fighter Squadron in 1928, Whittle became intrigued with the central problem facing the aircraft industry at that time: overcoming the limitations that both propellers and piston engines placed on altitude and speed. At high altitudes, the air was too thin to properly engage propellers, nor could a piston engine continue to run on the meager oxygen content of high-altitude air. After considering the problem, Whittle proposed a means of doing away both with propellers and pistons by using a turbine engine. The turbine could compress the thin oxygen of the upper stratosphere, combine it with fuel, and ignite it, and the expanding gases would result in a jet blast that would propel the craft.

Instead of being applauded, Whittle met with resistance and objections, chief among them the fact that the RAF possessed no materials that could withstand the heat and stress created by a jet engine. Whittle persevered, however, and eventually found a group of outside backers with whom he formed a corporation called Power Jets in 1936. By April 1941, more than 18 months after the beginning of World War II in Europe, Whittle was ready to test his W.1 jet engine.

On May 15, 1941, an RAF pilot took up the Gloster-Whittle E28/29 aircraft, created by Whittle, for a 17-minute flight. During that time, the aircraft reached a speed of 370 miles per hour (592 km/hour)—unheard-of at the time—at an elevation of 25,000 ft (7,620 m). Duly impressed, the British government supported Power Jets in the process of refining the engine and aircraft in time to begin production in June 1942.

In 1943 Rolls-Royce took over Power Jets, and in the following year Great Britain nationalized it. Only in 1944 did jets reach the skies over Britain, when the Meteor I helped defend the island against German dictator Adolf Hitler's last-gasp bombardment with V-1 rockets. By then it was clear that the Allies would win the war with or without the jet, and enthusiasm waned among Whittle and his colleagues. Whittle himself left the company in 1946.

During the remaining half-century of his life, Whittle accepted a number of honors and awards, among them knighthood in 1948. He had married Dorothy Lee of Coventry in 1930, and they had two sons; they were divorced in 1976. Whittle served as technical consultant for a number of firms, and following his divorce moved to the United States. There he married a second wife, Hazel, and went to work developing jets for the U.S. Navy. He died at his home in Columbia, Maryland, on August 8, 1996, aged 89.


Whittle, Sir Frank

views updated May 18 2018

Whittle, Sir Frank (1907–96). Born in Coventry, Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine, began his career as an apprentice with the Royal Air Force at RAF College, Cranwell. While still a student he developed the idea of the gas turbine or ‘jet’ engine, but was discouraged by the technical and administrative difficulties in Britain in the 1920s. But from 1934–6 the RAF seconded him to Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he took 1st class honours in Mechanical Engineering. In the lead-up to the Second World War he was assigned to a special project to develop the engine, and despite shortage of materials and much official incomprehension was brilliantly successful. His team produced a viable gas turbine and installed it in an aeroplane to create the first British jet fighter in the closing stages of the war. Other inventors, in Germany and Italy, had been working on similar lines but it was Whittle's expertise which was taken up in Britain and the USA to produce the radically new generation of jet aircraft after the war. Whittle lived the last 20 years of his life in the USA, was awarded the OM in 1986, and at a thanksgiving service in Westminster Abbey in November 1996 was saluted by a fly-past of six jets.

R. Angus Buchanan

Whittle, Sir Frank

views updated May 11 2018

Whittle, Sir Frank (1907–96) British aeronautical engineer, who pioneered the development of the turbojet engine. He entered the Royal Air Force (RAF) as an apprentice and later studied at the RAF engineering school and at Cambridge University. In 1930 he patented his first turbojet engine but received little official support. In 1936 he founded a company called Power Jets and was later given special permission to carry out development work on jet propulsion. A plane powered by the Whittle engine had its first flight in May 1941 and entered service with the RAF in 1944. He was knighted in 1948.

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