Whittle, Sir Frank


British inventor of the turbojet, allowed airplanes to fly without propellers


Type: Signed card
Description:  (1907-1996) RAF Air Commodore credited with inventing the turbojet engine.

Whittle showed an early aptitude for engineering and an interest in flying. He  was  sent to RAF No. 2 School of Technical Training, taught the theory of aircraft engines and got practical experience in engineering workshops. He went into officer training at Cranwell, became a pilot July 1928. While writing his thesis he formulated fundamental concepts that led to creation of the turbojet engine, patenting his design in 1930. His thesis was on potential aircraft design developments, notably flight at high altitudes and speeds over 500 mph. He described what is now called 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. Whittle’s aim was to show that at increased altitudes the lower outside air pressure would increase the design’s efficiency. 

Without Air Ministry support, he and two ex-RAF servicemen formed Power Jets Ltd to build his engine with help from British Thomson-Houston (BTH); a prototype first ran in 1937. Official interest followed, contracts were placed to develop engines, but stress badly affected Whittle’s health, leading to a 1940 nervous breakdown. In 1944, Power Jets was nationalized and he had a 2nd nervous breakdown, resigning 1946. In 1948, he retired from the RAF and was knighted. He joined BOAC as a technical advisor then was an engineering specialist with Shell, then joined Bristol Aero Engines. Immigrating to the US in 1976, he became NAVAIR Research Professor at the US Naval Academy 1977-79. In 2002, he ranked 42nd in a BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.

Whittle continued work on the motorjet principle but abandoned it when calculations showed it would weigh as much as a conventional engine of the same thrust. He decided to substitute a turbine for the piston engine to extract power from the exhaust and drive a similar compressor to those used for superchargers; the remaining exhaust thrust would power the aircraft.  His concept attracted the attention of Flying Officer Pat Johnson, formerly a patent examiner, who took the concept to the base CO. Johnson had Whittle patent the idea in January 1930. Since the RAF was not interested they did not declare it secret so Whittle was able to retain the rights to the idea. 

Whittle was promoted to Flying Officer January 1930, attended the Officers’ Engineering Course at RAF Henlow 1932, finishing  in 18 months instead of 2 years. In 1934 took a 2-year engineering course at Peterhouse, Cambridge, graduating 1936 with a First in the Mechanical Sciences Tripos. In Feb. 1934, promoted to Flight Lieutenant and still at Cambridge, Whittle could not afford the jet engine patent’s £5 renewal fee when it came due Jan. 1935; because the Air Ministry refused to pay it his patent lapsed.

In 1935, Whittle and his associates were introduced to the investment bank O.T. Falk & Partners, where discussions took place with Lancelot Law Whyte and Sir Maurice Bonham-Carter. Whyte was impressed and O.T. Falk & Partners financed an independent engineering review, issued Nov. 1935. It was favorable and Falk agreed to finance Whittle. 

On 27 Jan. 1936, the principals created Power Jets Ltd. As Whittle was still an RAF officer at Cambridge, he was given the title “Honorary Chief Engineer and Technical Consultant”. Power Jets entered into an agreement with steam turbine specialists BTH to build an experimental engine facility at BTH’s Rugby factory.

Power Jets WU (Whittle Unit) engine ran successfully 12 April 1937 and the Air Ministry provided a £5,000 contract to develop a flyable version; it was a year before funds became available, delaying development. In July, Whittle’s Cambridge stay ended, promoted to Squadron Leader in December. 

BTH put in £2,500 in January, and in March 1938 Air Ministry funds finally arrived but they were now subject to the Official Secrets Act which made getting more private equity hard. German Hans von Ohain built the world’s 1st flyable Jet aircraft, the Heinkel HeS 3. Whittle’s efforts would have been at least at the same level had the Air Ministry taken greater interest.

By June 1939, when another visit was made by Air Ministry personnel, Whittle was able to run the W.U. at high power for 20 minutes without difficulty, the Director of Scientific Research now convinced of the project’s importance. The Ministry agreed to buy the W.U. and loan it back to them, and ordered a flyable version of the engine. Work began in earnest on the “Whittle Supercharger Type W.1”. In January 1940, the Ministry contracted for a simple aircraft to flight-test the W.1, the Gloster E.28/39, and contracted for a 2nd engine for what became the otherwise similar W.2. In April, the Air Ministry contracted 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, the contract eventually taken up by Rover only. In June, Whittle was promoted to Wing Commander.

Whittle put together an engine from spare parts, creating the W.1X (“X” for “experimental”) which ran for the first time on 14 December 1940. On 10 December Whittle had a nervous breakdown, and left work for a month. A US patent application was made by Power Jets for an “Aircraft propulsion system and power unit”. The W1X engine powered the E.28/39 for taxi testing 7 April 1941 and flew short hops of a few hundred yards at 6’ from the ground. 

On 15 May the W.1-powered E.28/39 flew 17 minutes with a maximum speed of 340 mph. Within days it reached 370 mph at 25,000’, exceeding performance of Spitfires. In early 1942 Whittle contracted Rolls-Royce for 6 engines, known as the WR.1, identical to the existing W.1. In Dec. 1942 Rover had tested the W.2B for 37 hours, but within the next month Rolls-Royce tested it for 390 hours. The W.2B passed its 1st 100-hour test at full performance of 1,600 lbf 7 May 1943. The prototype Meteor airframe flew 12 June 1943. Production began in October, first known as the W.2B/23, then the RB.23 (for “Rolls-Barnoldswick”).

The Luftwaffe beat the British into the air by 9 months but always risked overheating and damaging their turbines; over 200 German pilots were killed during training. The Me 262 flew faster than allied planes and had very effective firepower. Coming late in the war, they shot down 542 Allied planes and in one Allied bombing raid downed 32 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses. UK designs had better materials for turbine blades, ran 150 hours between overhauls, and had better power-to-weight ratio and specific fuel consumption compared with German designs.

Whittle went to Boston in mid-1942 to help the GE jet program. The W.2B design and a simple Bell Aircraft airframe flew in autumn 1942 as the Bell XP-59A Airacomet, 6 months before the British Meteor flight. Whittle’s work caused a minor revolution within the British engine manufacturing industry. During an April 1943 demonstration of the E.28/39 to Winston Churchill, Whittle proposed to Minister of Aircraft Production Stafford Cripps that all jet development be nationalized and offered to surrender his shares; on 1 December Cripps told Power Jets’ directors that the Treasury would pay £100,000 for the company. In Jan. 1944 Whittle was made a CBE, now Group Captain, promoted from Wing Commander July 1943. The Ministry offered £135,500 for Power Jets, and as Whittle had offered to surrender his shares he received nothing. 

On 28 March, Power Jets officially became Power Jets (Research and Development) Ltd, Whittle as Chief Technical Advisor. On 5 April 1944, the Ministry sent Whittle £10,000 for his shares. From the end of March, he spent 6 months hospitalized for nervous exhaustion, resigning from Power Jets (R and D) Ltd Jan. 1946. He became Technical Advisor on Engine Design and Production to Controller of Supplies (Air), was made Commander, US Legion of Merit and awarded the Order of the Bath in 1947. During May 1948 Whittle received £100,000 in recognition of his work on the jet engine, and 2 months later was made a KBE, Military Division. During a US lecture tour, he again broke down and retired from the RAF 26 August 1948 as Air Commodore. He was with BOAC as a technical advisor on aircraft gas turbines to 1952, spent 1953 on his autobiography, “Jet: The Story of a Pioneer”. He worked 1953-57 as a Mechanical Engineering Specialist developing a new self-powered drill for Shell, then went to Bristol Aero Engines.

In 1967, he was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame. He immigrated to the US and in 1977 became NAVAIR Research Professor at the US Naval Academy, and wrote a textbook, “Gas Turbine Aero-Thermodynamics: With Special Reference to Aircraft Propulsion”, publ. 1981. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Signed 3 x 5 card dated February 21 1951 by Whittle

Condition: Very good

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