The Life of Frank Whittle and His Massive Contribution to Turbomachinery

While we at SoftInWay are known for helpful articles about designing various machines and answering questions about the pros and cons of retrofitting your turbomachinery and powerplants, we believe it is important to also examine the lives of some of the men and women behind these great machines that do so much for the world.

Frank Whittle - Image Courtesy of The Telegraph
Frank Whittle – Image Courtesy of The Telegraph

The jet engine is one of the greatest inventions of the last 100 years. It has made transcontinental travel considerably shorter. A trip that might take days on a piston driven aircraft was cut down to hours thanks to the inception of the jet engine. To this day, millions of people rely on jet engines daily for everything from themselves for vacation travel to their packages for shipping goods overnight. These engines also give the U.S. military the ability to deploy to any part of the world within 18 hours.

But who invented the jet engine? This credit changes depending on who you ask.  Some might answer it was Hans von Ohain.  To others, this credit belongs to Sir Frank Whittle, OM, KBE, CB, FRS, FRAeS, RAF.

Why the discrepancy? von Ohain is known for creating the world’s first operational jet engine, and Whittle is credited with developing the turbojet earlier. While von Ohain’s first engine was the first to fly operationally in 1939, Sir Frank Whittle had been working on his design since the 1920’s. Today, we’d like to look at the life of Sir Frank Whittle, and how he created this world-changing machine.

Sir Frank Whittle was born on June 1st in 1907 in the central English town of Coventry.[i] From a young age, Whittle was fascinated by flying and the engineering that surrounded it. He attended Leamington College, and while attending spent time in the library learning about turbomachinery such as steam and gas turbines.[ii] When he reached military age, he attempted to join the Royal Air Force, which had only been formed a few years earlier at the end of the First World War. Sir Frank, however, was turned down at first, and this would become an unfortunate precedent between Sir Frank and the RAF going forward.

After repeated attempts to join the RAF which included intense physical training and re-applying using a different name, Sir Frank Whittle was finally accepted in 1923.[iii] In 1926, he was awarded a cadetship at the RAF college, and as a result was able to train to become a pilot.

After a colorful flight career that included being punished for “hedge-hopping”, which for those who don’t know means flying at very low altitudes, Whittle became known for his unprecedented thesis on aircraft propulsion.[iv] He wrote about the potential for using rocket engines and turbine driven propellers (now commonly known as turboprops) for propelling aircraft which could reach higher altitudes, travel much faster, and farther than their piston driven predecessors.[v]

In 1928, Sir Frank began work on a gas-driven turbine in his spare time. The turbine would propel a plane by using the thrust generated by the jet exiting the engine, as opposed to a turbine-driven fan or propeller. Word of his design reached the Air Ministry, but after reviewing the proposals, Sir Frank was turned down after being told that a successful working design was considered unfeasible. Yet again, the Royal Air Force and the Air Ministry followed that precedent set years before and turned Whittle down.

Despite this setback, he took out the patent on his engine. His friend Pat Johnson, who had helped spread the word around about Sir Frank’s revolutionary design, helped get him in front of the chief turbine engineer at British Thomson-Houston (BTH), a Rugby-based GE subsidiary known for making electrical systems and steam turbines.[vi] While BTH was not against the concept of Sir Frank’s invention, the cost of development and production was too much for BTH to invest in.

After the patent on Sir Frank’s engine lapsed, and the Air Ministry declined to pay the renewal fee, Sir Frank got help from Rolf Dudley-Williams, James Tinling, and Lancelot Law Whyte to found Power Jets Ltd.[vii] in January 1936. Sir Frank now had a business where he could continue his experiments and improve his revolutionary design. Power Jets, represented by Whittle, then contracted with BTH to build Whittle’s first experimental engine, called the Whittle Unit (WU).

The W1 Engines layout courtesy of The Institution of Mechanical Engineers
The W1 Engine’s layout, courtesy of The Institution of Mechanical Engineers

The Power Jets engines to come were an interesting configuration for a turbojet. The Whittle Unit 1 featured a double-sided centrifugal compressor made from an alloy called Hiduminium RR59. [viii] The turbine was a 72-blade single stage axial turbine made from Firth-Vickers Rex78 (for the blades) and Firth-Vickers Stayblade for the disk.[ix] The first iterations utilized a water-cooled turbine, before switching over to air cooled. The engine’s static thrust rating was 850lbf at 16,500 RPM[x].

Air Ministry continued extending contracts to Power Jets and BTH even after several tests and subsequent runaway incidents where the unit ran out of control. Then in September 1939, World War II broke out. As a result, the Air Ministry invested more money in Sir Frank’s project, and commissioned the W2, an improved version of his first engine, to be created and fitted to an experimental aircraft called the E 28/39 that was to be designed and built by Gloster Aircraft Company.[xi]

However, Sir Frank was once again challenged with adversity; his company’s relationship with BTH has declined over the years, and the UK Government cut out the middleman in jet engine experimentation, by contracting directly with BTH and Rover Motor Company[xii]. Power Jets was left as a research organization instead of the lead R&D company pioneering the development of the jet fighter.

2839 prototype
The First E.28/39 prototype, powered by the Power Jets Wittle W.1A

The Air Ministry then commissioned Gloster to design a twin-engine fighter called the F9/40; which would eventually become the Meteor. This was a dark time for Sir Frank, marked by depression, and heavy drinking and smoking despite the official records from the Minister of Aircraft Production.

All was not lost, however! The E28, the test platform for Whittle’s W2 engine, flew successfully at RAF Cranwell in April and May of 1941. When his friend, Pat Johnson, came over to congratulate him on his engine’s successful flight Sir Frank is noted as saying “Well, that was what it was bloody well designed to do, wasn’t it?”[xiii]

With the success of this prototype, Sir Frank was flown to Boston, MA in the United States to assist GE and Bell Aircraft assist development of their Airacomet.[xiv]

By 1943, Rolls-Royce, de Haviland, and Metropolitan-Vickers had become involved in the project, with Rolls-Royce taking over work on Sir Frank’s engine. He continued to make improvements on his design resulting in further WU-x units. At this point, Rolls-Royce had almost complete control of Power Jets, and by 1944, Sir Frank proposed that Power Jets be nationalized.[xv]

Unfortunately for Sir Frank, Sir Stafford Cripps, then Minister of Aircraft Production, had the company procured for £135,563.10s. Having given his shares over to the Ministry earlier for £47,000, Sir Frank didn’t receive a dime[xvi].

His invention, however, had come to full fruition, with the Gloster Meteor now being produced, and shooting down German V1 flying bombs late in World War II.[xvii] The era of the jet fighter was in full swing, and flight had been forever changed.

The Power Jets Whittle 2
The Power Jets Whittle 2 (W2), which was the first production jet engine for the British, and powered the original Gloster Meteors

After decades of professional and personal struggle, Sir Frank Whittle was recognized for his contribution to military aviation and aerospace engineering. He retired from the RAF in 1948. He was Knighted, and awarded a sum of £100,000 by the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors.[xviii][xix]

Later in life, he published Jet in 1953 and Gas Turbine Aero-Thermodynamics in 1981, after resettling in America in 1976. He was on the faculty at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis in Maryland. Sir Frank Whittle passed away at age 89, on August 9, 1996 after suffering from lung cancer. [xx]

It’s important to note that he had befriended “rival” Hans von Ohain, who is credited with creating the first operational jet engine in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. When the two men met, Sir Frank initially had concerns that von Ohain had stolen his idea, but later believed that von Ohain’s work was in fact not based on or inspired by his own work.

Sir Frank Whittle’s legacy of designing the turbojet engine lives on, with almost all commercial and military aircraft today being powered by gas turbines, whether they are turbofan, turboprop, or turbojet engines. His story is an inspiration for engineers and non-engineers alike, demonstrating that persistence is one of the serious keys to success, and that the road to success can contain numerous failures, but eventually, even an invention dismissed as “not feasible” can change the world for the better.

References

BBC. (2014). Frank Whittle (1907-1996). Retrieved from BBC History: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/whittle_frank.shtml

National Inventors Hall of Fame. (2020). Frank Whittle. Retrieved from National Inventors Hall of Fame: https://www.invent.org/inductees/frank-whittle

Renishaw. (2020). Sir Frank Whittle. Retrieved from Renishaw: https://www.renishaw.com/en/sir-frank-whittle–40462

The Daily Telegraph. (1996, August 10). Obituaries – Sir Frank Whittle. Retrieved from The Daily Telegraph: https://web.archive.org/web/20130207131006/http:/www2.eng.cam.ac.uk/~bcb/whittle/telgraph.htm

Whittle, A. C. (1945). The early history of the Whittle jet propulsion gas turbine. I Mech E, 419-435.

[i] (BBC, 2014)

[ii] (The Daily Telegraph, 1996)

[iii] (The Daily Telegraph, 1996)

[iv] (The Daily Telegraph, 1996)

[v] (The Daily Telegraph, 1996)

[vi] (The Daily Telegraph, 1996)

[vii] (The Daily Telegraph, 1996)

[viii] (Whittle, 1945)

[ix] (Whittle, 1945)

[x] (Whittle, 1945)

[xi] (The Daily Telegraph, 1996)

[xii] (The Daily Telegraph, 1996)

[xiii] (The Daily Telegraph, 1996)

[xiv] (BBC, 2014)

[xv] (The Daily Telegraph, 1996)

[xvi] (The Daily Telegraph, 1996)

[xvii] (The Daily Telegraph, 1996)

[xviii] (National Inventors Hall of Fame, 2020)

[xix] (The Daily Telegraph, 1996)

[xx] (The Daily Telegraph, 1996)