Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle, OM, KBE, CB, FRS, 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.
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.
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.
In 2002, Whittle was ranked number 42 in the BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.
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. 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, 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. Whittle developed a rebellious and adventurous streak, together with an early interest in aviation.
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. At the age of 15, determined to be a pilot, Whittle applied to join 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. 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.
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.
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. 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 RAF College Cranwell.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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. However, his flight logbook also showed numerous red ink warnings about showboating and overconfidence, and because of dangerous flying in an Armstrong Whitworth Siskinhe was disqualified from the end of term flying contest.
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. 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.
A jet engine is a reaction engine discharging a fast moving jet that generates thrust by jet propulsion in accordance with Newton’s laws of motion. This broad definition of jet engines includes turbojets, turbofans, rockets, ramjets, and pulse jets. In general, jet engines are combustion engines but non-combusting forms also exist.
In common parlance, the term jet engine loosely refers to an internal combustion airbreathing jet engine (a duct engine). These typically consist of an engine with a rotary (rotating) air compressor powered by a turbine (“Brayton cycle“), with the leftover power providing thrust via a propelling nozzle. Jet aircraft use these types of engines for long-distance travel. Early jet aircraft used turbojet engines which were relatively inefficient for subsonic flight. Modern subsonic jet aircraft usually use high-bypass turbofan engines. These engines offer high speed and greater fuel efficiency than piston and propeller aeroengines over long distances.