Frank Whittle – Father of the Jet Engine

Frank Whittle – Father of the Jet Engine


Frank Whittle was born on 1 June 1907 in Coventry, the son of a mechanic. From an early age, Whittle demonstrated an aptitude for engineering and an interest in flying.

At first he was turned down by the RAF but, determined to join the Royal Air Force, he overcame his physical limitations and was accepted and sent to No. 2 School of Technical Training to join No 1 Squadron of Cranwell Aircraft Apprentices. He was taught the theory of aircraft engines and gained practical experience in the engineering workshops. His academic and practical abilities as an Aircraft Apprentice earned him a place on the officer training course at Cranwell. 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 Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he graduated with a First.

In 1935, Whittle secured financial backing and, with Royal Air Force approval, Power Jets Ltd was formed. They began constructing a test engine in July 1936, but it proved inconclusive. Whittle concluded that a complete rebuild was required, but lacked the necessary finances.

Protracted negotiations with the Air Ministry followed and the project was secured in 1940. By April 1941, the engine was ready for tests. The first flight was made on 15 May 1941. By October the United States had heard of the project and asked for the details and an engine. A Power Jets team and the engine were flown to Washington to enable General Electric to examine it and begin construction. The Americans worked quickly and their XP-59A Airacomet was airborne in October 1942, sometime before the British Gloster Meteor, which became operational in 1944

XP-59A Airacomet

British Gloster Meteor

In 1948, Whittle retired from the RAF and received a knighthood. He joined BOAC as a technical advisor before working as an engineering specialist with Shell, followed by a position with Bristol Aero Engines. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1976 he accepted the position of NAVAIR Research Professor at the United States Naval Academy from 1977–1979. In August 1996, Whittle died of lung cancer at his home in Columbia, Maryland.


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