The world owes a lot to Frank Whittle; it is almost certain that without him, you wouldn’t live the life that you do today; because he invented the turbojet engine.
You’d think that, to a country facing a world war, an invention that innovative- a world-opening, potentially war-winning, thrilling thing such as a turbojet engine - would have been met with unbridled excitement and celebration; and yet, Whittle’s fight to get his designs noticed was a long, arduous and frustrating one, and one which would ultimately contribute to the failing of his health.
Frank Whittle was not a stranger to struggles, especially physical ones. Born in 1907 in Coventry, in a very normal house, to a very normal family, young Frank showed signs of immense strength, determination and drive; but only on the inside. Physically, he was small in stature, and he was regarded as weak throughout his childhood and adolescence. Whittle’s father was a mechanic; a highly inventive man who instilled a lust for learning and discovery in his eldest son, and so it wasn’t long before young Frank had decided that he had one goal in life; to become a pilot. Splitting his time between his father’s workshop and the Leamington reference library, where he would pore over books on engineering and aviation, he built up a tremendous amount of knowledge; showing a particular interest in a single-cylinder gas engine which sat in his father’s workshop. He became an expert on the thing; tinkering and fiddling and experimenting, combining his practical understanding with the knowledge that he sought out from books, and showing a remarkable amount of discipline for such a young boy. At the tender age of 15, Frank applied to join the RAF.
He passed the entrance exam with flying colours - it was rather easy, compared to what he had been learning about in his own time - and reported to RAF Halton as an aircraft apprentice. Unfortunately, he only lasted 2 days, as he failed the medical. At 5 feet tall, he was simply too small, and he was sent packing. Frank was not an easily deterred teenager; rather than wallowing or seeking out an alternative path, he sought out the expertise of a nutritionist and set about an intense regime focused on adding centimetres onto not only his chest but his actual height. Six months later, he tried again, and was sent home again, despite having added 3 inches to his measurements. Undeterred, and showing a spark of the nature which would drive him through the long-haul, arduous process to come, he went back for a third time, under a different name; and he passed the medical and was allocated as an apprentice Aircraft Mechanic. He was in.
Frank struggled with the strict rules and regulations of RAF life, preferring to do things his own way, but he was fuelled by his love for flight and engineering, and he knew that following the rules was the only way to take to the skies. And so, with gritted teeth and unwavering determination, he managed to keep his rebellious side in check. Impressing those around him with his exquisite skill in building working model aircraft replicas and his mathematical genius, he was soon turning heads, and he was recommended for RAF Officer training at RAF College Cranwell. It was a dream come true for Frank, because alongside entering the commissioned ranks, he was to learn how to fly; something which had seemed like an almost impossible dream at points. Being an ex-apprentice among an overwhelming majority of ex-public schoolboys brought its own challenges. Frank felt like a misfit, but he kept his head down, concentrated on doing what he loved, and excelled in his courses. He knew that whatever he lacked in public schooling, he more than made up for in gumption and self-taught foundational knowledge. After only 13.5 hours of instruction, he was flying solo, quickly progressing to flying the Bristol Fighter and gaining a reputation for being a bit of a daredevil with his aerobatics and nerve-wracking low flying.
Frank’s thesis focused on aircraft design developments, in particular flight at high altitudes and speeds over 500 mph. He showed that incremental improvements in existing propeller engines were unlikely to make high-speed, high-altitude flight a reality; a fresh approach was required, with extensive innovation, and he wanted to be the one to do it. He described what we would today call a motorjet; a motor which uses a conventional piston engine to provide compressed air to a combustion chamber, whose exhaust was used directly for thrust.
It wasn’t a new idea, but the way in which Whittle suggested using it was entirely new; because he said that at an increased altitude, the lower air density outside would increase the efficiency of the design. In simple terms, he proposed that if very high speeds were combined with long range, it would be necessary to fly at a great height, at which point the lower air density would greatly reduce resistance in proportion to speed. More speed, more power, more efficiency. It was big thinking for an RAF thesis - something which could be regarded as a -get-it-done-type activity for the less academically gifted - and it got people thinking; none more so than Frank himself, who was almost consumed with a desire to make his beloved planes go faster and higher than ever before.
Frank graduated from the RAF College at the age of 21; ranking second in his class for academics, winning the Andy Fellowes Memorial Prize for Aeronautical Sciences for his thesis, and with a reputation for being an exceptional pilot. The only red marks in his logbook were warnings and tellings-off about showboating and taking risks while flying; his rebellious, adventurous side hadn’t been totally suppressed under the watchful, highly disciplined eye of the RAF. And it was this defiance of the norm, this desire to push boundaries, that led him to take on the fight of his life.
Whittle kept musing his thesis subject well beyond its submission. He took on a role as Pilot Officer, flying Siskin III fighter planes, and continuing to defy physics and the rulebook by performing enough aerobatics and low-flying stunts that he was nearly court-martialled. Frank became a popular and gifted instructor, renowned for his passion and knowledge, and was selected to perform the “Crazy flying” routine at the RAF Air Display in 1930. He crashed and destroyed two aircraft during rehearsals but was somehow unscathed himself; his enraged Flight Lieutenant is rumoured to have furiously asked him “why don’t you take all my bloody aeroplanes, make a heap of them in the middle of the aerodrome and set fire to them - it’s quicker!” Despite his ability to rile those around him up with this daring, he stayed on the right side of the law and, indeed, on the correct side of those who mattered to his bigger plans. Frank had continued to hash out, re-hash and adapt his very early jet engine designs, and he formed a close bond with Flying Officer Pat Johnson, who had formerly been a patent officer. Johnson encouraged him to send his concept to the Air Ministry in 1929 to see if it would be of interest. With little knowledge or understanding of the concept, they showed it to one A. A. Griffith, a chap who had, in 1926, published a paper on compressors and turbines, describing how a jet engine could be produced but that it would be impractical. There had been little interest in his paper, and when the Air Ministry turned to him - as the only other contact they knew who had an understanding of such things - to review Whittle’s ideas, Griffith shut them down - perhaps unwilling to admit that the jet engine which he had failed to prove as a legitimate possibility could, in fact, be doable.
Undeterred, Pat Johnson convinced Whittle to patent the idea in January 1930, and they remained convinced of its potential. But the people who they needed to convince weren’t interested, and so life went on. Whittle married and had two sons, David and Ian, and he was posted to Felixstowe as a test pilot of seaplanes, where he continued to talk about his idea to anyone who would listen. He arranged a meeting with Armstrong Siddeley, a British engineering group, but they rejected his proposal on the grounds that there wasn’t a material available which could withstand the very high temperatures required to bring Whittle’s idea to life. His turbojet proposal required a compressor with a pressure ratio of 4:1, while the best current supercharger had only half of that value. Determined to prove that it could be achieved, Whittle published papers showing complex example calculations which showed the huge increase in efficiency which could be achieved with a gas turbine functioning at a great height, due to the low outside air temperature. He attended the Officers School of Engineering in 1932, achieving an aggregate of 98% of subjects in his entrance exam, which allowed him to complete an accelerated, shortened one year course. From there, he was permitted to take a two-year engineering course at Cambridge University, graduating with a First in 1936. While at Cambridge, the patent for his jet engine lapsed, as he couldn’t afford to pay the £5 renewal fee and the Air Ministry refused to help with payment. Frustrated, but ever-determined, Frank continued to pore over his plans, using every spare moment to piece together everything that he had learned from his extensive studies, convinced that he was onto something.
One day, in May, he received mail from a man named Rolf Dudley-Williams, who he had met during his training. Williams arranged a meeting with Whittle as well as another retired RAF serviceman, James Collingwood Tinling. The two proposed a partnership, offering to act on Whittle’s behalf to gather public financing so that development of the jet engine could go ahead. It was the first real piece of interest that Whittle had received, and it soon bore fruit; in 1935, through Tinling’s father, Whittle was introduced to a well-known independent aeronautical engineer named Mogens L. Bramson. Bramson, initially sceptical, soon became a vehement supporter, and he introduced Whittle and his associates to the investment bank O.T. Falk & Partners, who had an interest in ‘out-there’ projects which other banks wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. 28-year old Frank blew their socks off; they were so impressed and excited by his plans that they declared him a genius, and stated that they had never been so quickly impressed and sold on an idea. In that moment, Whittle’s dream moved tantalisingly close to coming within reach; hovering just a hair’s breadth above his ever-stretching fingertips.
The Air Ministry finally showed a vague interest, although they saw the concept of a functional jet engine as far-flung - but it was just enough to add a little more fuel to Whittle’s fire. The gentlemen created ‘Power Jets Ltd’, with Whittle appointed as Honorary Chief Engineer and Technical Consultant; as a full-time RAF officer and still currently studying at Cambridge, he was not permitted to spend more than 6 hours per week on the design. Power Jets Ltd entered into an agreement with British Thomson-Houston to build an experimental engine facility in Rugby.
After such a long period of rejection, disappointment, and dismissal, work began to progress very quickly indeed. By 1936, Germany had also started to work on jet engines, with Hans Von Ohain chasing up Whittle’s progress, and this increased urgency fuelled the men through arduous days and nights of work. Financial difficulties presented hurdle after hurdle; the Air Ministry’s refusal to financially support the project meant that the company was reliant on public investment, and with A.A. Griffiths - who you may recall from earlier in the story and who was affronted by Whittle’s potential to grow in the world in which they were competing - loudly demeriting their work in the background at every opportunity, funding was sparse.
The project was forced to slow down. Meanwhile, in Germany, Ohain had filed for a patent and, in 1939, he was responsible for the world’s first flyable jet aircraft, the Heinkel He 178. If Whittle had been supported by the Air Ministry, there is no doubt that he would have had the first operational jet aircraft to his name. War broke out in September 1939, and Whittle’s normally indomitable spirit was struggling in the face of so many disruptions and setbacks. He was smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day, suffering from headaches, insomnia, anxiety and heart palpitations. His weight dropped to 9 stone, and during his 16-hour working days, he sniffed Benzedrine - an amphetamine now commonly used in the treatment of ADHD - and took tranquilizers and sleeping pills at night. He admitted that he had become addicted to Benzedrine, and he became an irritable man with an explosive temper. He was a young man, but one who had dedicated his life to bringing this dream to life, and to be continually dismissed, knocked back and unsupported was taking a severe toll on him.
By the summer of 1939, Power Jets Ltd could barely afford to keep their lights on, let alone to make any significant progress on getting their engines out there into the world. When all seemed lost, and the men were close to being forced to shut down, a visit was made by Air Ministry personnel. Whittle was able to run his Whitte Unit (W.U.) jet engine for 20 minutes without any difficulty, and the Director of Scientific Research, David Randall Pye, walked out of the demonstration convinced that this was the most important project of their generation. The Ministry agreed to buy the W.U. and loan it back to Power Jets Ltd with an injection of cash, and placed an order for a flyable version of the engine. It was a huge turning point for Whittle, when he was at rock bottom, and on 15th May 1941 the first British jet-powered plane took off from Cranwell, flying for 17 minutes, and reaching a maximum speed of around 340 mph. At the end of the flight, Pat Johnson, Whittle’s long-term supporter and friend, turned to Frank and said “Frank, it flies.” Frank, in his typical fashion and with more than a little exasperation, replied; “well, that’s what it was bloody well designed to do, wasn’t it?”
Within days, the aircraft was reaching speeds of 370mph at 25,000 feet, meaning that it was exceeding the performance of the Spitfires, which were regarded as the best of the best. Suddenly, Rolls Royce, Hawker-Siddeley, the Bristol Aeroplane Company, and de Havilland became interested in gas turbine engine propulsion, and Whittle’s dream had become a reality. But the long, obstacle-riddled journey to this point had taken a toll, and in December that year, Frank suffered a nervous breakdown. Development continued regardless, and soon, Power Jets Ltd had three engines, with the aid of Rolls Royce. Momentum was gathered, and while Whittle battled his own demons, the jet engine went from strength to strength. In a public demonstration to Winston Churchill in 1943, Whittle proposed that all jet development should be nationalised. Rightly embittered by how this had all come about, he highlighted the fact that the company had been funded by private investors who helped to develop the engine successfully, only to see production contracts go to other, bigger companies - the ones who had shown no interest in the early, hard-fought days. Nationalisation was, he felt, the only way to repay those debts, and he was willing to surrender his shares in Power Jets Ltd to make this happen. The Air Ministry offered £100,000 for Power Jets Ltd, which was declined. Frank Whittle was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the New Year Honours. By this time he was a group captain, having been promoted from wing commander. The Gloster Meteor, the first British jet fighter which was using Frank’s turbojet engines, had roared into action for the last year of the war, proving itself as a ground-breaking combat fighter. The Ministry made a further offer of £135,000 for Power Jets Ltd, and it was begrudgingly accepted, and since Whittle had offered to surrender his shares, he received nothing at all. Williams and Tinling each received almost £46,800, and investors of cash or services had a threefold return on their original investment. Eventually, after an embarrassingly long period of time, the Ministry sent Whittle just £10,000 for his shares.
Frank, at this point, was in hospital with nervous exhaustion. He spent 6 months there, during which time he fully resigned from any involvement with Power Jets, and 16 of his engineers followed his lead and resigned too. The war was ended, and with it, finally, ended Frank’s struggle to get his jet engines off the ground. But it wasn’t the end of him, nor his indomitable spirit and drive. In 1946, Frank accepted a post as Technical Advisor on Engine Design and Production, was made a Commander of the US Legion of Merit, and, in 1948, was awarded £100,000 from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors in recognition - finally - of his work on the jet engine. He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire 2 months later. But the toll of the marathon effort that had led up to these moments still weighed heavy on Frank, and he again broke down, and retired from the RAF on medical grounds. He joined BOAC as a technical advisor and travelled extensively, reviewing jet engine developments in the USA, Canada, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. He wrote his biography, he accepted a role with Shell where he developed a new type of drill, and he was given award after award, honorary degrees and doctorates.
In 1976, his marriage to Dorothy ended, and Frank married an American by the name of Hazel Hall. He emigrated to the USA and worked with the United States Naval Academy, publishing a heavily-used textbook on gas turbine aero-thermodynamics. It was in 1978, at an air force base in Ohio, that Whittle met Ohain; the German who had ‘overtaken’ Frank in getting the first jet-powered plane up into the skies. Initially uncomfortable around each other, the two became firm friends, with Ohain admitting “If you had been given the money you would have been six years ahead of us. If Hitler or Goering had heard that there is a man in England who flies 500mph in a small experimental plane and that it is coming into development, it is likely that World War II would not have come into being.” It was a moment of bittersweet resolution for Whittle; to finally have his work and his all-consuming efforts acknowledged, despite the enormous detriment that the journey had had upon him.
Whittle died of lung cancer on 9th August 1996, at his home in Columbia, Maryland, at the age of 89; a very respectable age for a chap who had put his body and mind through so much in pursuit of bringing his dreams to life. He was cremated and his ashes flown to England, where they were placed in memorial at a church in Cranwell, where he had spent many happy years feverishly developing his plans, and defying death in the skies above. Frank Whittle was an unstoppable man with a dream; a dream which paved the way for us to eat avocados and mangoes and bananas, a dream which allows us to travel abroad for incredible holidays and experiences, to fly to see family on the other side of the world. Above all, he's a stark reminder of why it’s important to take a leap of faith and invest in those who have the gumption, passion and know-how to make changes in the world. It isn’t always the loudest, richest, most powerful, most glitzy or glamorous or steady and level-headed people who we should be listening to; sometimes, it’s the people whose passion for what they believe in, does the talking. From passion comes progress, and boy; what glorious progress it was.