Sir Frank Whittle – Innovative Aviator

Sir Frank Whittle was an RAF officer attributed for starting the Jet Age. Born in Coventry on 1 June 1907, Whittle was accepted into the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1923. By 1928 he was a qualified pilot officer. By working alongside his father, Whittle learned much about engineering from a young age and it greatly interested him. Combining his love for flight and engineering, Frank Whittle began to develop revolutionary ideas.

Prior to graduating as a pilot officer, Whittle wrote a brilliant thesis. Entitled “Future Developments in Aircraft Design”, the thesis put forward that airplanes could achieve high speeds and long ranges only if they fly at high altitudes. In order to do this, he determined that rocket propulsion and propellers driven by gas turbines were necessary.

While studying at the Central Flying School to become an instructor in 1929, Whittle began developing the turbo-jet engine idea. This involved a gas turbine moving a plane due to the jet caused by hot exhaust gas. The Air Ministry rejected his idea. Nonetheless, Whittle patented the turbo-jet in 1930.

In 1932 Whittle began attending the Officers’ Engineering Course. He averaged 98% in his exams, so the RAF sent him to study Mechanical Sciences Tripos at Cambridge University. At the time he was also working on his turbo-jet engine. With the assistance of some friends and investment bankers, Power Jets Limited was established in November 1935. Whittle had to overcome a number of development issues, along with working hard to promote his ideas. In two years (normally it takes three), Whittle completed his Tripos, but was given another year at the university to conduct research. He now began to gain government backing for his project, though this brought its own challenges, it also provided him with access to top technicians and graduates.

Following development of the W1 turbo-jet engine, work began on the more powerful W2. Whittle encountered some problems with the Air Ministry. Despite this, in May 1941, the allied’s first turbo-jet, the Gloster E28/39, took to the air. Power Jets introduced the W1X to General Electric in the U.S.A, after they expressed an interest. The Americans created the Bell XP-59A Airacomet, which had its first flight in October 1942. Frank Whittle designed the Rolls Royce Welland engine that was used in a British jet fighter called the Meteor by 1944.

Power Jets was nationalized in 1946 and Frank Whittle decided to join RAF’s Gas Turbine section. In 1948 Whittle was knighted, and also retired from the RAF. During the 1950s he assisted various aviation companies as a consultant, later moving to the U.S.A. A true visionary, he continued to write articles throughout his life. Sir Frank Whittle OM, KBE, CB, FRS, FRAeS passed away in August 1996.