It started in a student’s notebook. Today, it enables us to make 1.5 billion air passenger journeys a year. The story of how Sir Frank Whittle invented the jet engine and shrank the world is one of the great dramas of the 20th century.
Sir Frank tells this story in Whittle – The Jet Pioneer, a feature-length documentary (71 minutes plus extras) originally made for The History Channel.
Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle (June 1, 1907–August 9, 1996) was a British Royal Air Force (RAF) officer. By the age of 30 he had invented all the forms of gas turbine jet engine we know today – and is now hailed as the father of jet propulsion.
In his teens Whittle demonstrated a natural aptitude for engineering and an interest in aviation. Determined to be a pilot, he made himself three inches taller to get into the RAF, where his abilities took him out of the ranks and onto its officer training course. He excelled in his studies and became an exceptional pilot. While writing his course thesis he formulated the ideas that led him to create the turbojet engine, which he patented in 1930.
With no government support, he and two retired RAF officers formed Power Jets Ltd. to make the world’s first jet engine. Despite limited funding, Whittle built a prototype which first ran in 1937. By June 1939 Power Jets could barely afford to keep the lights on when skeptical British government scientists came to check Whittle’s progress. His engine ran for 20 minutes without difficulty and saved the turbojet project for Britain. In January 1940, the Air Ministry ordered a simple aircraft specifically to flight-test Whittle’s engine.
Yet a German jet engine – developed after Whittle’s – had already flown in August 1939, due to its designer Hans von Ohain having far greater private investment. But it was not a success. Spurred on by WW2, both German and British manufacturers including Rolls Royce started building turbojets, in a race to put a jet fighters into combat first.
By 1944 both Britain and Germany had a squadron of such aeroplanes. However, the German jets would typically last only 10–25 hours before burning out – and sometimes even exploded on startup. Whittle’s designs were far more reliable and by the end of the war every major engine company in Britain was working on jet engines based on Whittle’s designs.
In 1941 his turbojet was sent to Boston, Massachusetts to enable General Electric to build the first American jet engine. Whittle came over in mid-1942 to help on GE’s jet program. He was delighted by the can-do attitude of the Americans. His engine laid the foundation of the American jet engine manufacturing capability: the engine of every jet plane flying today is descended from Whittle’s first turbojet of 1937.
In 1948 Whittle retired from the RAF and received a knighthood. He joined BOAC as a technical advisor before working as an engineering specialist in one of Shell Oil’s subsidiaries. In 1976 he re-married, to an American, and moved to Maryland where he accepted the position of NAVAIR Research Professor at the United States Naval Academy from 1977–1979. In August 1996, Sir Frank Whittle died of lung cancer at his home.
About the filmmakers
Quanta Limited is one of the UK’s oldest independent TV production companies. It was founded in 1982 by Glyn Jones, the creator of Tomorrow’s World on BBC 1. The company is now led by Nicholas Jones, its Creative Director and Head of Sales. Quanta has made documentaries for the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and various international networks.
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