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Sir Frank Whittle
Born 1 June 1907 (1907-06)
Earlsdon, Coventry, England
Died 9 August 1996 (1996-08-10) (aged 89)
Columbia, Maryland, U.S.
Cause of death Lung cancer
Place of burial Cranwell, England
Nationality British
Education RAF Aircraft Apprentice, No 2 School of Technical Training, RAF Cranwell. Royal Air Force College Cranwell.Peterhouse, University of Cambridge
Occupation RAF Engineer Officer
Known for Development of the jet engine
Title Sir
Spouse(s) Dorothy Lee (1930–1976)
Hazel Hall
Children 2 sons
Military career
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Years of service 1923–1948
Rank Air Commodore
Battles/wars World War II
Awards Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) (1948)
Companion of the Order of the Bath (1947)
Louis E. Levy Medal (1956)
Order of Merit (1986)
Fellow of the Royal Society (1986)[1]
Honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society (1986)
Commander of the Legion of Merit (1946)
Charles Stark Draper Prize
Other work BOAC technical advisor, Shell Oil engineer, engineer for Bristol Aero Engines, NAVAIR Professor at the US Naval Academy

Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle, OM, KBE, CB, FRS,[1] Hon FRAeS (1 June 1907 – 9 August 1996) was a British Royal Air Force (RAF) engineer air officer. He is credited with single-handedly inventing the turbojet engine. Whittle's engines were developed some years earlier than those of Germany's Dr. Hans von Ohain who was the designer of the first operational jet engine.[2]

From an early age Whittle demonstrated an aptitude for engineering and an interest in flying. At first he was turned down by the RAF but determined to join the Royal Air Force, he overcame his physical limitations and was accepted and sent to No. 2 School of Technical Training to join No 1 Squadron of Cranwell Aircraft Apprentices. He was taught the theory of aircraft engines and gained practical experience in the engineering workshops. His academic and practical abilities as an Aircraft Apprentice earned him a place on the officer training course at Cranwell. He excelled in his studies and became an accomplished pilot. While writing his thesis there he formulated the fundamental concepts that led to the creation of the turbojet engine, taking out a patent on his design in 1930. His performance on an officers' engineering course earned him a place on a further course at the University of Cambridge where he graduated with a First.[3]

Without Air Ministry support, he and two retired RAF servicemen formed Power Jets Ltd to build his engine with assistance from the firm of British Thomson-Houston. Despite limited funding, a prototype was created, which first ran in 1937. Official interest was forthcoming following this success, with contracts being placed to develop further engines, but the continuing stress seriously affected Whittle's health, eventually resulting in a nervous breakdown in 1940. In 1944 when Power Jets was nationalised he again suffered a nervous breakdown, and resigned from the board in 1946.[4]

In 1948 Whittle retired from the RAF and received a knighthood. He joined BOAC as a technical advisor before working as an engineering specialist in one of Shell Oil's subsidiaries followed by a position with Bristol Aero Engines. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1976 he accepted the position of NAVAIR Research Professor at the United States Naval Academy from 1977 to 1979. In August 1996, Whittle died of lung cancer at his home in Columbia, Maryland.[5] In 2002, Whittle was ranked number 42 in the BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.[6]

Early life

Whittle's birthplace in Earlsdon, Coventry, England. (photo 2007)

Whittle was born in a terraced house in Newcombe Road, Earlsdon, Coventry, England on 1 June 1907, the eldest son of Moses Whittle and Sara Alice Garlick.[7] When he was nine years old, the family moved to the nearby town of Royal Leamington Spa where his father, a highly inventive practical engineer and mechanic,[8] purchased the Leamington Valve and Piston Ring Company, which comprised a few lathes and other tools and a single-cylinder gas engine, on which Whittle became an expert.[3][5] Whittle developed a rebellious and adventurous streak, together with an early interest in aviation.[7]

After two years attending Milverton School, Whittle won a scholarship to a secondary school which in due course became Leamington College for Boys, but when his father's business faltered there was not enough money to keep him there. He quickly developed practical engineering skills while helping in his father's workshop, and being an enthusiastic reader spent much of his spare time in the Leamington reference library, reading about astronomy, engineering, turbines, and the theory of flight.[8] At the age of 15, determined to be a pilot, Whittle applied to join the RAF.[3]

Entering the RAF

In January 1923, having passed the RAF entrance examination with flying colours Whittle reported to RAF Halton as an Aircraft Apprentice. He lasted only two days: just five feet tall and with a small chest measurement, he failed the medical.[3] He then put himself through a vigorous training programme and special diet devised by a physical training instructor at Halton to build up his physique, only to fail again six months later, when he was told that he could not be given a second chance, despite having added three inches to his height and chest.[7] Undeterred, he applied again under an assumed name and presented himself as a candidate at the No 2 School of Technical Training RAF Cranwell. This time he passed the physical, and in September that year, 364365 Boy Whittle, F started his three-year training as an aircraft mechanic in No 1 Squadron of No. 4 Apprentices Wing, RAF Cranwell because RAF Halton No. 1 School of Technical Training.[8] was unable to accommodate all the Aircraft apprentices at that time

Whittle hated the strict discipline imposed on apprentices and, convinced there was no hope of ever becoming a pilot he at one time seriously considered deserting.[8] However, throughout his early days as an aircraft apprentice (and at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell), he maintained his interest in model aircraft and joined the Model Aircraft Society, where he built working replicas. The quality of these attracted the eye of the Apprentice Wing commanding officer, who noted that Whittle was also a mathematical genius. He was so impressed that in 1926 he recommended Whittle for officer training at The RAF College Cranwell.[3]

For Whittle, this was the chance of a lifetime, not only to enter the commissioned ranks but also because the training included flying lessons on the Avro 504.[3] While at Cranwell he lodged in a bungalow at Dorrington. Being an ex-apprentice amongst a majority of ex-public schoolboys, life as an officer cadet was not easy for him, but he nevertheless excelled in the courses and went solo in 1927 after only 13.5 hours instruction, quickly progressing to the Bristol Fighter and gaining a reputation for daredevil low flying and aerobatics.[8]

A requirement of the course was that each student had to produce a thesis for graduation: Whittle decided to write his on potential aircraft design developments, notably flight at high altitudes and speeds over 500 mph (800 km/h). In Future Developments in Aircraft Design 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 idea was not new and had been talked about for some time in the industry, but Whittle's aim was to demonstrate that at increased altitudes the lower outside air pressure would increase the design's 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.[3]

Of the few apprentices accepted into the Royal Air Force College, Whittle graduated in 1928 at the age of 21 and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in July.[9] He ranked second in his class in academics, won the Andy Fellowes Memorial Prize for Aeronautical Sciences for his thesis, and was described as an "exceptional to above average" pilot.[3] However, his flight logbook also showed numerous red ink warnings about showboating and overconfidence,[3] and because of dangerous flying in an Armstrong Whitworth Siskin he was disqualified from the end of term flying contest.[8]

Development of the turbojet engine

Whittle continued working on the motorjet principle after his thesis work but eventually abandoned it when further calculations showed it would weigh as much as a conventional engine of the same thrust. Pondering the problem 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 drive a similar compressor to those used for superchargers. The remaining exhaust thrust would power the aircraft.[10]

On 27 August 1928 Pilot Officer Whittle joined No. 111 Squadron, Hornchurch, flying Siskin IIIs. His continuing reputation for low flying and aerobatics provoked a public complaint that almost led to his being court-martialled.[11] Within a year he was posted to Central Flying School, Wittering, for a flying instructor's course. He became a popular and gifted instructor, and was selected as one of the entrants in a competition to select a team to perform the "crazy flying" routine in the 1930 Royal Air Force Air Display at RAF Hendon. He destroyed two aircraft in accidents during rehearsals but remained unscathed on both occasions. After the second incident an enraged Flight Lieutenant Harold W. Raeburn said furiously, "Why don't you take all my bloody aeroplanes, make a heap of them in the middle of the aerodrome and set fire to them – it's quicker!"[11]

Whittle showed his engine concept around the base, where it attracted the attention of Flying Officer Pat Johnson, formerly a patent examiner. Johnson, in turn, took the concept to the commanding officer of the base. This set in motion a chain of events that almost led to the engines being produced much sooner than actually occurred.[3]

Earlier, in July 1926, A. A. Griffith had published a paper on compressors and turbines, which he had been studying at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE). He showed that such designs up to this point had been flying "stalled", and that by giving the compressor blades an aerofoil-shaped cross-section 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.

Encouraged by his Commanding Officer, in late 1929 Whittle sent his concept to the Air Ministry to see if it would be of any interest to them. 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 sort 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 his comment to Whittle, referring to the design as being "impracticable".[3]

Pat Johnson remained convinced of the validity of the idea, and had Whittle patent the idea in January 1930. Since the RAF was not interested in the concept they did not declare it secret, meaning that Whittle was able to retain the rights to the idea, which would have otherwise been their property. Johnson arranged a meeting with British Thomson-Houston (BTH), whose chief turbine engineer seemed to agree with the basic idea. However, BTH did not want to spend the ₤60,000 it would cost to develop it, and this potential brush with early success went no further.[3]

In January 1930, Whittle was promoted to Flying Officer.[12] In Coventry, on 24 May 1930, Whittle married his fiancée, Dorothy Mary Lee, with whom he later had two sons, David and Ian.[11] Then, in 1931, he was posted to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe as an armament officer and test pilot of seaplanes, where he continued to publicize his idea. This posting came as a surprise for he had never previously flown a seaplane, but he nevertheless increased his reputation as a pilot by flying some 20 different types of floatplanes, flying boats, and amphibians.[8][13] Every officer with a permanent commission was expected to take a specialist course, and as a result Whittle attended the Officers’ Engineering Course at RAF Henlow, Bedfordshire in 1932. He obtained an aggregate of 98% in all subjects in his exams, completing the course in 18 months instead of the more normal two years.

His performance in the course was so exceptional that in 1934 he was permitted to take a two-year engineering course as a member of Peterhouse, the oldest college of Cambridge University, graduating in 1936 with a First in the Mechanical Sciences Tripos.[3] In February 1934, he had been promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant.[14]

Power Jets Ltd

Still at Cambridge, Whittle could ill afford the £5 renewal fee for his jet engine patent when it became due in January 1935, and because the Air Ministry refused to pay it the patent was allowed to lapse. Shortly afterwards, in May, he received mail from Rolf Dudley-Williams, who had been with him at Cranwell in the 1920s and Felixstowe in 1930. Williams arranged a meeting with Whittle, himself, and another now-retired RAF serviceman, James Collingwood Tinling. The two proposed a partnership that allowed them to act on Whittle's behalf to gather public financing so that development could go ahead.[3]

The agreement soon bore fruit, and in September 1935 the pair introduced Whittle to two investment bankers at O.T. Falk & Partners, Sir Maurice Bonham-Carter and Lancelot Law Whyte.[3] The firm had an interest in developing speculative projects that conventional banks would not touch. Whyte was impressed by the 28-year-old Whittle and his design when they met on 11 September 1935:

The impression he made was overwhelming, I have never been so quickly convinced, or so happy to find one's highest standards met... This was genius, not talent. Whittle expressed his idea with superb conciseness: 'Reciprocating engines are exhausted. They have hundreds of parts jerking to and fro, and they cannot be made more powerful without becoming too complicated. The engine of the future must produce 2,000 hp with one moving part: a spinning turbine and compressor.'
— Lancelot Law Whyte, [15]

Falk & Partners financed an independent engineering review that was favourable,[16] and with that the jet engine was finally on its way to becoming a reality.

On 27 January 1936, the principals signed the "Four Party Agreement", creating "Power Jets Ltd." The parties were O.T. Falk, the Air Ministry, Whittle and, together, Williams and Tinling. Falk was represented on the board of Power Jets by Whyte as chairman, and Bonham-Carter as a director.[17] Whittle, Williams and Tinling retained a 49% share of the company in exchange for Falk and Partners putting in £2,000 with the option of a further £18,000 within 18 months.[4] As Whittle was still a full-time RAF officer and currently at Cambridge, he was given the title "Honorary Chief Engineer and Technical Consultant". Needing special permission to work outside the RAF, he was placed on the Special Duty List and allowed to work on the design as long as it was for no more than six hours a week.[18]

The Air Ministry still saw no value in the effort, and having no production facilities of its own, Power Jets entered into an agreement with steam turbine specialists British Thomson-Houston to build an experimental engine facility at a BTH factory in Rugby, Warwickshire.[19] Work progressed quickly, and by the end of the year the prototype detail design was finalised and parts for it were well on their way to being completed, all within the original £2,000 budget.[4]

Financial difficulty

Earlier, in January, when the company formed, Henry Tizard, the rector of Imperial College London and chairman of the Aeronautical Research Committee (ARC), had prompted the Air Ministry's Director of Scientific Research to ask for a write-up of the design. The report was once again passed on to Griffith for comment, but was not received back until March 1937 by which point Whittle's design was well along. Griffith had already started construction of his own turbine engine design and, perhaps to avoid tainting his own efforts, he returned a somewhat more positive review. However, he remained highly critical of some features, notably the use of jet thrust. The Engine Sub-Committee of ARC studied Griffith's report, and decided to fund his effort instead.[4]

Given this astonishing display of official indifference, Falk and Partners gave notice that they could not provide funding beyond £5,000.[4] Nevertheless, the team pressed ahead, and the W.U. (Whittle Unit) engine ran successfully on 12 April 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 £5,000 to develop a flyable version.[20] However, it was a year before the funds were made available, greatly delaying development.

In July, when Whittle's stay at Cambridge was over, he was released to work full-time on the engine. On 8 July Falk gave the company an emergency loan of £250, and on the 15th they agreed to find £4,000 to £14,000 in additional funding. The money never arrived and, entering into default, Falk's shares were returned to Williams, Tinling and Whittle on 1 November. Nevertheless, Falk arranged another loan of £3,000, and work continued.[4] Whittle was promoted to Squadron Leader in December.[21]

Testing continued with the W.U., which showed an alarming tendency to race out of control. Because of the dangerous nature of the work being carried out, development was largely moved from Rugby to BTH's lightly used Ladywood foundry at nearby Lutterworth in Leicestershire in 1938, where there was a successful run of the W.U. in March that year. BTH had decided to put in £2,500 of their own in January, and in March 1938 the Air Ministry funds finally arrived. This proved to be a mixed blessing – the company was now subject to the Official Secrets Act, which made it extremely difficult to gather more private equity.

The Gloster E.28/39, the first British aircraft to fly with a turbojet engine

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 doubt that Whittle's efforts would have been at the same level or even more advanced had the Air Ministry taken a greater interest in the design. When war broke out in September 1939, Power Jets had a payroll of only 10 and Griffith's operations at the RAE and Metropolitan-Vickers were similarly small.

The stress of the continual on-again-off-again development and problems with the engine took a serious toll on Whittle.

The responsibility that rests on my shoulders is very heavy indeed. ... either we place a powerful new weapon in the hands of the Royal Air Force or, if we fail to get our results in time, we may have falsely raised hopes and caused action to be taken which may deprive the Royal Air Force of hundreds of [conventional] aircraft that it badly needs. ... I have a good crowd round me. They are all working like slaves, so much so, that there is a risk of mistakes through physical and mental fatigue.
— Frank Whittle, [22]

He suffered from stress-related ailments such as eczema and heart palpitations, while his weight dropped to nine stone (126 lb / 57 kg). In order to keep to his 16-hour workdays, he sniffed Benzedrine during the day and then took tranquillizers and sleeping pills at night to offset the effects and allow him to sleep. Over this period he became irritable and developed an "explosive" temper.[23]

Changing fortunes

By June 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 W.U. at high power for 20 minutes without any difficulty. One of the members of the team was the Director of Scientific Research, David Randall Pye, who walked out of the demonstration utterly convinced of the importance of the project. The Ministry agreed to buy the W.U. and then loan it back to them, injecting cash, and placed an order for a flyable version of the engine.[20]

Whittle had already studied the problem of turning the massive W.U. into a flyable design, and with the new contract work started in earnest on the "Whittle Supercharger Type W.1". It featured a reverse-flow design; compressed air from the outer rim of the compressor was fed into the burners and ignited, then piped back towards the front of the engine, reversing again, then finally into the turbine area. This design allowed the flame cans to be folded in length, reducing the length of the engine, and the length of the drive shaft connecting the compressor and turbine, thus reducing weight.

In January 1940, the Ministry placed a contract with the Gloster Aircraft Company for a simple aircraft specifically to flight-test the W.1, the Gloster E.28/39. They also placed a second engine contract, this time for a larger design that developed into the otherwise similar W.2. In February work started on a third design, the W.1A, which was the size of the W.1 but used the W.2's mechanical layout. The W.1A allowed them to flight test the W.2's basic mechanical design in the E.28/39. 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 having a somewhat simpler layout. 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 disc, "necked down" at either end where it connected to the turbine and compressor.

In April the Air Ministry issued contracts for W.2 production lines with a capacity of up to 3,000 engines a month in 1942, asking BTH, Vauxhall and the Rover Company to join. However, the contract was eventually taken up by Rover only.[24] In June, Whittle received a promotion to Wing Commander.[25]


Meanwhile, work continued with the W.U., which eventually went through nine rebuilds in an attempt to solve the combustion problems that caused the engines to race and surge. On 9 October the W.U. ran once again, this time equipped with Lubbock ("Shell" type) atomizing burners which solved the racing problems,[26] but surging continued.

By this point it was clear that Gloster's first airframe would be ready long before Rover could deliver an engine. Unwilling to wait, Whittle cobbled together an engine from spare parts, creating the W.1X ("X" standing for "experimental") which ran for the first time on 14 December 1940. On 10 December Whittle suffered a nervous breakdown, and left work for a month.[27] This engine powered the E.28/39 for taxi testing on 7 April 1941 near the factory in Gloucester, where it took to the air for two or three short hops of several hundred yards at about six feet from the ground.[5]

The definitive W.1 of 850 lbf (3.8 kN) thrust ran on 12 April 1941, and on 15 May the W.1-powered E.28/39 took off from Cranwell at 7:40 pm, flying for 17 minutes and reaching a maximum speed of around 340 mph (545 km/h). At the end of the flight, Pat Johnson, who had encouraged Whittle for so long said to him, "Frank, it flies." Whittle replied, "Well, that's what it was bloody well designed to do, wasn't it?"[3][28]

Within days the aircraft was reaching 370 mph (600 km/h) at 25,000 feet (7,600 m), exceeding the performance of the contemporary Spitfires. Success of the design was now evident; the first example of what was a purely experimental and entirely new engine design was already outperforming one of the best piston engines in the world, an engine that had five years of development and production behind it, and decades of basic engineering. Nearly every engine company in Britain then started their own crash efforts to catch up with Power Jets.

The W2/700 engine, or W.2B/23 as it was known to the Air Ministry. The W2/700 was the first British production jet engine, powering early models of the Gloster Meteor.

In 1941 Rover set up a new laboratory for Whittle's team along with a production line at their unused Barnoldswick factory, but by late 1941 it was obvious 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 attitude of engineering superiority, and became increasingly outspoken about the problems. Rover decided to set up secretly a parallel effort with their own engineers at Waterloo Mill, in nearby Clitheroe. Here Adrian Lombard started work developing the W.2B into Rovers own production-quality design, dispensing with Whittle's "reverse-flow" burners and developing a longer but simpler "straight-through" engine instead. This was encouraged by the Air Ministry, who gave Whittle's design the name "B.23", and Rover's became the "B.26".

Work on all of the designs continued over the winter of 1941–42. The first W.1A was completed soon after, and on 2 March 1942 the second E.28/39 reached 430 mph (690 km/h) at 15,000 feet (4,600 m) on this engine. The next month work on an improved W.2B started under the new name, "W2/500". In April Whittle learned of Rover's parallel effort, creating discontentment and causing a major crisis in the programme. Work continued, however, and in September the first W2/500 ran for the first time, generating its full design thrust of 1,750 lbf (7.8 kN) the same day. Work started on a further improvement, the W2/700.


Earlier, in January 1940, Whittle had met Dr Stanley Hooker of Rolls-Royce, who in turn introduced Whittle to Rolls-Royce board member and manager of their Derby factory, Ernest Hives (later Lord Hives). Hooker was in charge of the supercharger division at Rolls-Royce Derby and was a specialist in the mathematics of "fluid flow". He had already increased the power of the Merlin piston engine by improving its supercharger.[29] Such a speciality was naturally suited to the dynamics of jet engines in which the optimisation of airflow in compressor, flame cans, turbine and jet pipe, is fundamental. Hives agreed to supply key parts to help the project and it was Rolls-Royce engineers who helped solve surging problems (unstable airflow in the compressor) experienced in the early engines. In early 1942 Whittle contracted Rolls-Royce for six engines, known as the WR.1, identical to the existing W.1.

When Rolls-Royce became involved, Ray Dorey, the manager of the company's Flight Centre at Hucknall airfield on the north side of Nottingham, had a Whittle engine installed in the rear of a Vickers Wellington bomber.[30][31] This enabled testing to be carried out in a real flight environment without the aircraft depending on the jet engine for its own propulsion and safety. This was the first flying "test bed" for testing jet engines before they were used for primary propulsion in their own right.

The problems between Rover and Power Jets became a "public secret" and late in 1942 Spencer Wilks of Rover met with Hives and Hooker at the "Swan and Royal" pub, in Clitheroe, near the Barnoldswick factory. They decided to trade the jet factory at Barnoldswick for Rolls-Royce's tank engine factory in Nottingham, sealing the deal with a handshake. The official handover took place on 1 January 1943, although the W.2B contract had already been signed over in December. Rolls-Royce closed Rover's secret parallel plant at Clitheroe soon after; however, they continued the development of the W.2B/26 that had begun there.

Testing and production ramp-up was immediately accelerated. In December 1942 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 1,600 lbf (7.1 kN) on 7 May 1943. The prototype Meteor airframe was already complete and took to the air on 12 June 1943. Production versions of the engine started rolling off the line in October, first known as the W.2B/23, then the RB.23 (for "Rolls-Barnoldswick") and eventually became known as the Rolls-Royce Welland. Barnoldswick was too small for full-scale production and turned back into a pure research facility under Hooker's direction, while a new factory was set up in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Rovers 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 in their own programme, the Luftwaffe beat the British efforts into the air by nine months. A lack of cobalt for high-temperature steel alloys meant the German designs were always at risk of overheating and damaging their turbines. The low-grade alloy production versions of the Junkers Jumo 004, designed by Dr. Anselm Franz, would typically last only 10–25 hours (longer with an experienced pilot) before burning out, and sometimes exploded on their first startup. Whittle's designs were more basic, with centrifugal compressors rather than the more complicated axial designs. The latter, having several stages of rotating blades, each stage increasing the compression ratio, were potentially more efficient but were much more difficult to develop. The UK designs also had better materials such as the Nimonic alloys for turbine blades. Early UK jet engines would run for 150 hours between overhauls and had better power-to-weight ratio and specific fuel consumption compared to the German designs. By the end of the Second World War, other UK engine companies were working on jet designs based on the Whittle pattern, such as the de Havilland Goblin and Ghost engines. However, the advantages of axial-flow compressors with their higher compression ratios compared to simpler centrifugal designs led to a transition to axial compressors in the late 1940s, epitomised by the Rolls-Royce Avon series, Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire, Bristol Olympus, and so forth.

Continued development

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A cutaway General Electric J31 (I-16) turbojet engine based on the W.1/W.2B

With the W.2 design 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 U.S., was well-suited to starting jet production quickly. 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, 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 higher power settings without melting the turbine. Whittle also turned his attention to the axial-flow (straight-through) engine type as championed by Griffith, designing the L.R.1. Other developments included the use of fans to provide greater 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. In 1941, de Havilland started a jet fighter project, 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.


During a demonstration of the E.28/39 to Winston Churchill in April 1943, Whittle proposed to Stafford Cripps, Minister of Aircraft Production, that all jet development be nationalised. He pointed out that the company had been funded by private investors who helped develop the engine successfully, only to see production contracts go to other companies. Nationalisation was the only way to repay those debts and ensure a fair deal for everyone, and he was willing to surrender his shares in Power Jets to make this happen. In October, Cripps told Whittle that he decided a better solution would be to nationalise Power Jets only.[4] Whittle believed that he had triggered this decision, but Cripps had already been considering how best to maintain a successful jet programme and act responsibly regarding the state's substantial financial investment, while at the same time wanting to establish a research centre that could utilise Power Jets' talents, and had come to the conclusion that national interests demanded the setting up of a Government-owned establishment.[32] On 1 December Cripps advised Power Jets' directors that the Treasury would not pay more than £100,000 for the company.[4]

In January 1944 Whittle was awarded the CBE in the New Year Honours.[33] By this time he was a Group Captain, having been promoted from Wing Commander in July 1943.[34] Later that month after further negotiations the Ministry made another offer of £135,500 for Power Jets, which was reluctantly accepted after the Ministry refused arbitration on the matter. Since Whittle had already offered to surrender his shares he would receive nothing at all, while Williams and Tinling each received almost £46,800 for their stock, and investors of cash or services had a threefold return on their original investment.[35] Whittle met with Cripps to object personally to the nationalisation efforts and how they were being handled, but to no avail. The final terms were agreed on 28 March, and Power Jets officially became Power Jets (Research and Development) Ltd, with Roxbee Cox as chairman, Constant of RAE Head of Engineering Division, and Whittle as Chief Technical Advisor. On 5 April 1944, the Ministry sent Whittle an award of only £10,000 for his shares.[4]

From the end of March, Whittle spent six months in hospital recovering from nervous exhaustion, and resigned from Power Jets (R and D) Ltd in January 1946. In July the company was merged with the gas turbine division of the RAE to form the National Gas Turbine Establishment (NGTE) at Farnborough, and 16 Power Jets engineers, following Whittle's example, also resigned.[36]

After the war

Frank Whittle speaking to employees of the Flight Propulsion Research Laboratory (Now known as the NASA Glenn Research Center), USA, in 1946

Long a socialist, Whittle's 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 the Conservative Member of Parliament for Exeter).

In 1946 Whittle accepted a post as Technical Advisor on Engine Design and Production to Controller of Supplies (Air); was made Commander, the U.S. Legion of Merit; and was awarded the Order of the Bath (CB) in 1947. During May 1948 Whittle received an ex-gratia award of £100,000 from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors in recognition of his work on the jet engine, and two months later he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE), Military Division.[3][37]

During a lecture tour in the U.S. he again broke down and retired from the RAF on medical grounds on 26 August 1948, leaving with the rank of Air Commodore.[3][38] He joined BOAC as a technical advisor on aircraft gas turbines and travelled extensively over the next few years, viewing jet engine developments in the United States, 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.[39] 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, where he developed a new type of self-powered drill,[39] driven by a turbine running on the lubricating mud that is pumped into the borehole 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 removed the need for a strong mechanical connection between the drill and the head frame, allowing for much lighter piping to be used. He gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1954 on The Story of Petroleum.

Whittle left Shell in 1957 to work for Bristol Aero Engines who picked up the project in 1961,[39] setting up "Bristol Siddeley Whittle Tools" to further develop the concept. In 1966 Rolls-Royce purchased Bristol Siddeley, but the financial pressures and eventual bankruptcy because of cost overruns of the RB211 project led to the slow wind-down and eventual disappearance of Whittle's "turbo-drill". The design eventually appeared only in the late 1990s, when it was combined with a continuous coiled pipe to allow uninterrupted drilling at any angle. "Continuous-coil drilling" has the ability to drill straight down into a pocket of oil and then sideways through the pocket to allow the oil to flow out faster.

In 1967, he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Science) by the University of Bath.[40]

Later life

Whittle received the Tony Jannus Award in 1969 for his distinguished contributions to commercial aviation.

In 1976, his marriage to Dorothy was dissolved and he married American Hazel S Hall ("Tommie"). He emigrated to the U.S. and the following year accepted the position of NAVAIR Research Professor at the United States Naval Academy (Annapolis, Maryland).[39] 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 entitled Gas turbine aero-thermodynamics: with special reference to aircraft propulsion, published in 1981.[3] Having first met Hans von Ohain in 1966, Whittle again met him at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1978 while von Ohain was working there as the Aero Propulsion Laboratory's Chief Scientist. Initially upset because he believed von Ohain's engine had been developed after seeing Whittle's patent, he eventually became convinced that von Ohain's work was, in fact, independent.[41] The two became good friends and often toured the U.S. giving talks together.

In 1986 Whittle was appointed a member of the Order of Merit (Commonwealth). He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, and of the Royal Aeronautical Society,[3] and in 1991 he and von Ohain were awarded the Charles Stark Draper Prize for their work on turbojet engines.

On his religious views, Whittle was an atheist.[42]

Whittle died of lung cancer on 9 August 1996, at his home in Columbia, Maryland. He was cremated in America and his ashes were flown to England where they were placed in a memorial in a church in Cranwell.[5]

In a conversation with Whittle after the war, Von Ohain stated[43] that "If you had been given the money you would have been six years ahead of us. If Hitler or Goering had heard that there is a man in England who flies 500mph in a small experimental plane and that it is coming into development, it is likely that World War II would not have come into being" As it was found later in the war the fighter superiority over Europe was key to winning the war in Europe.

Styles and promotions

Air Commodore Frank Whittle at his desk

(ribbon bar, as it would look today)

Order of Merit (Commonwealth realms) ribbon.png Order of the British Empire (Military) Ribbon.png

Order of the Bath UK ribbon.png War Medal 39-45 BAR.svg GeorgeVSilverJubileum-ribbon.png GeorgeVICoronationRibbon.png

  • 1907–1923: Frank Whittle
  • 1923–1926: Apprentice Frank Whittle
  • 1926–1928: Officer Cadet Frank Whittle
  • 1928–1930: Pilot Officer Frank Whittle
  • 1930–1934: Flying Officer Frank Whittle
  • 1934–1938: Flight Lieutenant Frank Whittle
  • 1938–1940: Squadron Leader Frank Whittle
  • 1940–1941: Squadron Leader (Temp. Wing Commander) Frank Whittle
  • 1941-1943: Wing Commander Frank Whittle
  • 1943–1944: Wing Commander (Temp. Group Captain) Frank Whittle
  • 1944–1946: Group Captain (Actg. Air Commodore) Frank Whittle, CBE
  • 1946–1947: Group Captain (Temp. Air Commodore) Frank Whittle, CBE
  • 1947–1948: Group Captain (Temp. Air Commodore) Frank Whittle, CB, CBE
  • 1948–1986: Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle, KBE, CB
  • 1986–1996: Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle, OM, KBE, CB, FRS, FRAeS


Statue of Sir Frank Whittle under the Whittle Arches, Coventry

Whittle Arches and statue, Coventry

Coventry, England

  • The "Whittle Arch" statue is a large double wing-like structure situated outside the Coventry Transport Museum, Millennium Place, Coventry City Centre.
  • A statue of Whittle by Faith Winter is situated under the Whittle Arch. It was unveiled on 1 June 2007 by his son, Ian Whittle, during a televised event. It shows Whittle at RAF Cranwell looking towards the sky observing the first test flight of a Whittle-powered Gloster E.28/39 on 15 May 1941.
  • A school is named after Whittle in the Walsgrave suburb of Coventry. It was first called Frank Whittle Primary, then renamed in 1997 as Sir Frank Whittle Primary School. A jet engine replica sits in the reception area of the school, donated by Whittle himself during his life.
  • A commemorative plaque marks the house in Newcombe Road, Earlsdon, Coventry, in which he was born and lived until age nine.[5]
  • On Hearsall Common, near Whittle's Coventry birthplace, a plaque commemorates where Whittle gained inspiration when he saw an aircraft land.
  • Coventry University named a building after him.
  • The main hangar at the Midland Air Museum is called The Sir Frank Whittle Jet Heritage Centre.
  • Whittle house was one of the four "houses" at Finham Park School until they were renamed in 2008.

Whittle memorial at Lutterworth

Lutterworth, England

  • Lutterworth Museum hold a very large unrivalled collection of original papers including the 1936 Patent, Power Jets Autograph book from 1945 and the Champagne bottle signed by everyone at a party at RAF Cranwell on the night of the first flight plus many more artifacts and displays. Also Luttrworth Museum give talks and put on displays all over the country.
  • A memorial has been erected in the middle of a roundabout outside Lutterworth and a bust of Frank Whittle has been erected in Lutterworth, where much of Whittle's development on the jet engine, was carried out.
  • A bust of Sir Frank Whittle near the war memorial on the corner of Church and George street.
  • The Sir Frank Whittle Public House is situated on the Greenacres estate in Lutterworth (opened in 2010)
  • 'Whittle Road' in Lutterworth was named after Sir Frank Whittle.


  • A full-scale model of the Gloster E28/39 Whittle has been erected just outside the northern boundary of Farnborough Airfield in Hampshire, UK.
  • The Sir Frank Whittle Medal is awarded annually by the Royal Academy of Engineering to an engineer, normally resident in the UK, for outstanding and sustained achievement which has contributed to the well-being of the nation.[44]
  • Two roads in Derby are named Sir Frank Whittle Road and Sir Frank Whittle Way, as a tribute to his work at Rolls-Royce.
  • The main office complex at the Rolls-Royce Bristol site has been named Whittle House.

Sir Frank Whittle's memorial at Farnborough Aerodrome

  • Whittle Parkway in Burnham is named after him.
  • One of the main buildings at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell is called Whittle Hall. It houses the Officer & Aircrew Cadet Training Unit and the Air Power Studies Division of King's College London.
  • Cambridge University Engineering Department has a Whittle Laboratory.
  • A road in Shaw, Oldham, is named Whittle Drive.
  • A road in Rugby is named Whittle Close.
  • Whittle Close in Clitheroe is named after him.
  • Sir Frank Whittle Way, a new road in Blackpool Business park, Blackpool.
  • The Jet public house in Leamington Spa, known as The Jet and Whittle until recent times, is named in honour of Whittle.
  • The Whittle Gas field in the Southern North Sea operated by BP.
  • The Whittle Inn near the Gloster Aircraft Company's former test runway in Hucclecote, Gloucestershire is named after Whittle; the nearby Tesco has a picture of a Gloster Meteor incorporated in part of its glass frontage.
  • The bar/restaurant in Royal Mail's management college at Coton House, Churchover is named the Whittle Bar.
  • A memorial stone was placed in the Royal Air Force Chapel in Westminster Abbey in his memory. The inscription on the stone reads: "Frank Whittle. Inventor & Pioneer of the Jet Engine. 1907–1996". The stone was carved by John Shaw (stone carver).
  • Sir Frank Whittle's national and international honours, medals, and awards (including the Order of Merit), are displayed in the Royal Academy of Engineering, London.
  • A building at Aero Engine Controls in Birmingham, UK has been named 'The Whittle Building' (1994)
  • Whittle Hangar is One of the main Hangars at HMS SULTAN and is used to house Navy marine gas turbines. The gas turbines are fully operational and used to train Royal Navy and foreign officers and sailors in gas turbine technology.
  • A plaque has been placed at the Port of Felixstowe to honour his link with the town (August 2010)
  • A plaque commemorating Whittle resides inside the hall of Binswood Sixth Form College in Leamington Spa, formerly Leamington College for Boys.

See also

  • Timeline of jet power


  1. 1.0 1.1 doi:10.1098/rsbm.1998.0028
    This citation will be automatically completed in the next few minutes. You can jump the queue or expand by hand
  2. Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain Encyclopaedia Britannica
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 3.17 3.18 3.19 Sir Frank Whittle, The Daily Telegraph, Obituaries, 10 August 1996
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 POWER JETS A brief biography, The Sir Frank Whittle Commemorative Trust
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 "Whittle – the Jet Pioneer" (History Channel broadcast & DVD). The History Channel (TV broadcast) & Quantal films (extended DVD of broadcast). Retrieved 5 October 2007. [dead link]
  6. "100 great Britons". Daily Mail. 21 August 2002. Retrieved 27 August 2012. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Whittle's biography on the RAF history website p. 1 Retrieved: 18 July 2008
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 Details from the Sir Frank Whittle Jet Heritage Centre display at the Midland Air Museum
  9. "No. 33414". 21 July 1928. 
  10. Gentlemen, I give you the Whittle engine[dead link]
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Whittle's biography on the RAF history website p. 2 Retrieved: 18 July 2008
  12. "No. 33591". 25 March 1930. 
  14. "No. 34023". 13 February 1934. 
  15. Lee Payne, The Great Jet Engine Race... And How We Lost[dead link] , Air Force Magazine, Vol. 65, No. 1 (January 1982)
  16. Nahum 2004, p. 28.
  17. Nahum 2004, pp. 34–35.
  18. Nahum 2004, p. 35.
  19. Nahum 2004, p. 53.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Nahum 2004, pp. 37–38.
  21. "No. 34461". 7 December 1937. 
  22. Nahum 2004, p. 57.
  23. Nahum 2004, pp. 79–80, 89.
  24. Nahum 2004, p. 61.
  25. "No. 34866". 7 June 1940. 
  26. Developed by Isaac Lubbock of the Shell combustion laboratories in Fulham. Nahum 2004, pp. 80–81.
  27. Nahum 2004, p. 89.
  28. Frank Whittle: A Daredevil Who Built Jets, BusinessWeek
  29. Source: Autobiography of Sir Stanley Hooker "Not Much of an Engineer", page 52
  30. Source: Autobiography of Sir Stanley Hooker "Not Much of an Engineer", page 106
  31. Verbal evidence from Flight Test Engineer W R (Bill) Grose who operated the Whittle engine in the Wellington and had previously been involved in ground test running of the Whittle engine at either Lutterworth or Rugby
  32. Nahum 2004, pp. 101, 105.
  33. "No. 36309". 31 December 1943. 
  35. Nahum 2004, p. 102.
  36. Nahum 2004, pp. 118–119.
  37. London Gazette, 4 June 1948
  38. London Gazette, 3 September 1948
  39. 39.0 39.1 39.2 39.3 Whittle's biography on the RAF history website p. 4 Retrieved: 19 July 2008
  41. Verbatim transcript of a two-day conference, An Encounter Between the Jet Engine Inventors, held at Wright-Patterson Air Base 3–4 May 1978 Retrieved: 19 July 2008
  42. John Golley (2010). Jet: Frank Whittle and the Invention of the Jet Engine. Eloy Gutierrez. p. 34. ISBN 9781907472008. "Although he had occasionally cut Church Parade, he had once held very strong religious beliefs, but these had eroded to such an extent that he had come to regard himself as an atheist. "By degrees", he said "I was forced to the conclusion that my beliefs were inconsistent with scientific teaching. Once the seeds of doubt were sown the whole structure of my former religious beliefs rapidly collapsed, and I swung to the other extreme"." 
  43. Margaret Conner, Hans von Ohain: Elegance in Flight (Reston, Virginia: American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics,Inc., 2001)
  44. The Royal Academy of Engineering website Retrieved: 20 July 2008


  • Brooks, David S (1997). Vikings at Waterloo: Wartime Work on the Whittle Jet Engine by the Rover Company. Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust. ISBN 1-872922-08-2. 
  • Golley, John (1997). Genesis of the Jet: Frank Whittle and the Invention of the Jet Engine. Crowood Press. ISBN 1-85310-860-X. 
  • Hooker, Stanley (2002). Not much of an engineer. An autobiography. Shrewsbury: Airlife Publ.. ISBN 1-85310-285-7. 
  • Jones, Glyn (1989). The jet pioneers. The birth of Jet-Powered Flight. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-50400-X. 
  • Nahum, Andrew (2004). Frank Whittle: Invention of the Jet. Icon Books Ltd. ISBN 1-84046-538-7. 
  • Whittle, Frank (1953). Jet: The story of a pioneer. Frederick Muller Ltd. 
  • Whittle, Frank (1981). Gas turbine aero-thermodynamics: with special reference to aircraft propulsion. Pergamon. ISBN 978-0-08-026718-0. 

External links

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