Leading on a jet plane
Cotswold Life|January 2020
From modest beginnings, Frank Whittle went on to invent something that would forever dramatically transform the modern world
Stephen Roberts

On April 12, 1937, the ‘WU’ (Whittle Unit) screamed into life, roaring like a ferocious lion, heralding the onset of the jet age. We would soon have jet fighters and jet travel as the world shrank and was transformed by this new invention.

For Frank Whittle, having a father who was a mechanical engineer, and owned a small company, was a boon. He was a youngster much inclined towards all things mechanical. He helped out in the workshop and thereby acquired some practical experience. He was born on June 1, 1907, at Newcombe Road, Earlsdon, Coventry. From these modest beginnings, he was destined to become an RAF officer and pilot, and successfully develop the turbojet engine.

Whittle’s initial attempts to join the RAF failed. He was found to be too small for his age. It was only on his third application in 1923 that he was accepted as a boy entrant, aged 16 (moral – ‘never give up’). He qualified as a pilot officer in 1928, having completed his training at RAF College, Cranwell, and was married in 1930 to Dorothy (Lee), with whom he had two sons. Initially posted to a fighter squadron, Whittle later served, first as a flying instructor, then as a test-pilot (1931-32). Not only was he a pilot; he undertook further studies at both the RAF Engineering School and at Cambridge University (1934-1936).

Whilst under training as a cadet, Whittle had written a thesis examining the possibility of planes flying at higher altitudes (where air resistance is less), achieving greater speeds and longer ranges as a result. He concluded that conventional propellers and piston engines would not be suitable, and his fertile imagination moved on to rocket propulsion, or propellers driven by gas turbines. In October 1929, he concluded that jet propulsion derived from the gas turbine was a feasible option and accordingly designed a practical engine. He was turned down flat by the Air Ministry, so patented the idea himself. Whittle’s tussles with officialdom put one in mind of another great aviation inventor of the period, Barnes Wallis, who would face similar frustrations with his bouncing bomb proposition. However, when faced with obstacles, the belligerent genius presses on.

The Air Ministry had failed to apply secrecy. Consequently, Whittle’s patent for the turbojet was issued in April 1931 and became available to all and sundry, including Germany!

By 1936, Whittle had secured the all-important financial backing and, with RAF approval, and the buy-in of associates formed Power Jets Ltd. A test engine was constructed and was first started up in April 1937. This early prototype was a proof-of-concept and evolved into a flight-engine over the next few years. Long-winded negotiations with the Air Ministry followed, with the project finally recognised in 1939, by which time Britain was preparing for war.

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