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Whittle, Sir Frankfree

  • G. B. R. Feilden

Sir Frank Whittle (1907–1996)

by Edward Irvine Halliday, 1960

© Charlotte & Stephen Halliday; photograph: © Crown copyright

Whittle, Sir Frank (1907–1996), aeronautical engineer and inventor of the jet engine, was born on 1 June 1907 at 72 Newcombe Road, Earlsdon, Coventry, the eldest of the three children of Moses Whittle (1882–1965), engineer and inventor, and his wife, Sara Alice, née Garlick (1882–1976). Both his parents had working-class backgrounds in the cotton industry of Lancashire, but his father had moved to Coventry where he expected to find greater scope for his inventive gifts. In 1916 Moses Whittle bought a small engineering business in Leamington Spa, and the young Frank learned the rudiments of engineering manufacture by working in the factory when he was ten years old. At eleven he won a scholarship to Leamington College. After a bad start he won another scholarship. Rather than doing homework he pored over texts on the theory of flight and practical flying in the public library. At the third attempt he was accepted by the Royal Air Force, and in September 1923 entered the apprentice wing of the RAF College, Cranwell. So outstanding was his ability that he was selected as one of the 1 per cent promoted to the officer training course. For his obligatory thesis at the end of the course, Whittle chose 'Future developments in aircraft design', concluding that for high speed and long range it would be necessary to fly very high. He was thinking of 500 m.p.h., when the top speed of RAF fighters was only about 150 m.p.h. He concluded that a new type of power plant would be required and examined rocket propulsion and a gas turbine driving a propeller, but the scheme of a gas turbine providing jet propulsion directly occurred to him only later.

Whittle passed out second from Cranwell in July 1928 and was posted to 111 fighter squadron at Hornchurch. The following year he was attached to the Central Flying School at Wittering, as a pupil on the flying instructor's course. There he had the idea of a gas turbine producing a propelling jet directly, which was far superior to any of his earlier proposals. One of the Central Flying School instructors, Flying Officer W. E. P. (Pat) Johnson, had trained as a patent agent and helped Whittle to draft a patent, for which the provisional specification was published on 16 January 1930. The Air Ministry showed no interest in this, and it was not placed on the secret list. With a view to exploiting his invention Whittle visited the British Thomson-Houston (BT-H) turbine factory, Armstrong Siddeley, and the engine division of the Bristol Aeroplane Company. On grounds of cost and the absence of suitable materials, all three companies declined to have any part in the development of Whittle's ideas, so he continued his service career, which included test-pilot duties and stunt-flying demonstrations at the RAF's annual Hendon air displays.

In 1932 Whittle was posted to the RAF officers' engineering course at Henlow, where he obtained outstanding results. This led him to apply to the Air Ministry to be sent to Cambridge University to take the mechanical sciences tripos. He was successful and was posted to Cambridge in July 1934. He rented a small house in Trumpington where he established his family, which now consisted of his wife, Dorothy Mary, née Lee (1904–1996), an artist, whom he had married in 1930, and two small sons. He kept up his flying through the Cambridge University air squadron, and it was there that he received a letter from Rolf Dudley-Williams, who had been a fellow cadet at Cranwell and had retained his interest in Whittle's turbo jet idea. Williams said that he and his partner, J. C. B. Tinling, thought that they might have a source of funding for developing Whittle's jet engine. When they met at Whittle's Trumpington house, it transpired that the proposed backer was the investment bank O. T. Falk & Partners, who had enlisted M. L. Bramson as a consultant. After meetings with Whittle, Bramson wrote a report which fully vindicated Whittle's proposals. Falk & Partners agreed to advance £2000 for the setting up of a company to be called Power Jets Ltd, to develop the Whittle jet engine. Without waiting for the incorporation of the company, Falks placed a contract with the BT-H Company in Rugby for the design drawings of an experimental engine to Whittle's requirements. The engine was to power a small 500 m.p.h. mailplane and was to consist of a single-stage centrifugal compressor driven by a single-stage turbine at up to 17,750 r.p.m. This concept was far in advance of anything that had been proposed previously.

A tentative assembly drawing of the engine was produced by BT-H in March 1936. Whittle was very dissatisfied with this, but by the end of the month he had completed a revised drawing which he sent to BT-H, where work on the detailed drawings of the prototype engine started in April 1936. Meanwhile, in Cambridge, Whittle's tripos examinations were looming very near. Work on the engine had seriously interfered with his studies, but for five weeks he concentrated entirely on preparation for the tripos, leaving Bramson to deputize for him. Rather to his surprise, he obtained first-class honours. This led his tutor to bring Whittle's achievement to the notice of the director of education of the Air Ministry, who obtained permission for Whittle to do a postgraduate year on research work, so that he was able to devote the greater part of his time to work on the engine.

The first test run of Whittle's prototype engine took place in the gallery of the BT-H turbine factory on 12 April 1937, with Whittle at the controls. After a normal light-up of the combustion chamber, there was a sudden acceleration from 2500 r.p.m. to about 8000 r.p.m., after which the speed began to drop. The following day a second runaway took place and the cause was identified as fuel leakage from the main burner whenever the fuel pump was run. The fault was rectified, but the BT-H management decided that Whittle's operations could not continue in the main turbine shop. Instead they offered him their disused foundry at Ladywood works, Lutterworth, some 7 miles from Rugby. The site had lain empty for some time and contained a vacant plot on which test houses and engine assembly bays were subsequently built.

Power Jets faced a financial crisis in the summer of 1937. The chairman of the Aeronautical Research Committee had commented favourably on Whittle's work, leading the Air Ministry to propose a contract worth £10,000 for further development. This was reduced to £5000 by officials and was signed only the following March. BT-H also invested £2500 in January 1938. Meanwhile Whittle's postgraduate year at Cambridge expired in the summer of 1937, but he was then transferred to the special duty list of the RAF to continue work on the engine full time. He moved his family to Rugby early in October, which made his life very much easier owing to the great reduction in travelling time. In December 1937 he was promoted to squadron leader, notwithstanding his transfer to the special duty list. Running of the engine at Lutterworth was resumed on 29 April 1938 and on 6 May a run of 1 hr 45 min. was achieved, although it was terminated by a disastrous turbine failure at 13,000 r.p.m. Thrust readings showed that 480 lb was being developed at 13,000 r.p.m. compared with an expected 550 lb. The engine was rebuilt with ten separate combustion chambers instead of the single chamber hitherto used, and was ready for test running in the autumn of 1938.

A critical stage in the development was reached on 30 June 1939 when the director of scientific research of the Air Ministry visited Lutterworth and witnessed a test run of 28 minutes' duration up to a maximum speed of 16,000 r.p.m. Confidence in the development had increased to the point where, two weeks later, Power Jets received a contract for a flight engine and BT-H accepted a subcontract for its manufacture. Simultaneously a contract for an experimental aeroplane, the E28/39, was placed with the Gloster Aircraft Company. The design of the flight engine was carried out by BT-H and was based on the ten combustion chamber layout. Initially a vaporizer combustion system was used, but this proved to be temperamental and was replaced by a pressure-jet system proposed by I. Lubbock of the Shell Petroleum Company. The final design was developed at Power Jets by the team of young engineers recruited by Whittle.

During the manufacture of the W1 engine a number of non-airworthy components had been produced and it was decided to assemble these into a second engine known as the W1X. Much valuable test running was done on this engine in the new test houses at Lutterworth, and at the end of March 1941 the engine was dispatched to the Gloster Aircraft Company for installation in the E28/39 airframe for taxiing trials. Installation was completed on 7 April 1941 and the engine was given its first run in the aircraft. Whittle made some taxiing runs, reaching a speed of about 60 m.p.h. The Gloster chief test pilot, P. E. G. Sayer, then took the controls and after some preliminary runs took the aircraft to the downwind end of the airfield, and on the run back the aircraft was airborne for a short time. Sayer repeated the performance twice more, the final ‘hop’ being very smooth.

The first flight of the E28/39 aircraft took place on the evening of 15 May 1941 at RAF Cranwell. The ten hours' flight trials were completed rapidly without any problems developing in either the engine or the airframe, which was a great tribute to the ability of all concerned. Interest in jet propulsion developed rapidly in Britain, and under an agreement at the highest government level the W1X engine, a complete set of drawings, and a team of three from Power Jets went to the General Electric Company's turbine factory at Lynn, Massachusetts, in the latter half of 1941. From this start, the development of jet propulsion proceeded apace in the USA.

As a development of the successful W1 flight engine, Whittle had conceived his W2 series which would have higher thrust and lower frontal area. The Ministry of Aircraft Production had been established in 1940 and involved both the Rover Company and BT-H in the manufacture of W2 engines. The first engine was delivered by Rover for testing by Power Jets in May 1941 but its performance was very poor. A complete revision of the design, known as the W2B, was instituted, and this was developed into the Welland engine after Rolls-Royce had taken over Rover's jet-engine activities in January 1943. By intensive development the performance was raised to an acceptable level, and the first Meteor I aircraft were delivered to the RAF in May 1944, and saw service against the German V-1 flying bomb. Meanwhile Power Jets had continued with engine development, producing the W2/500 and W2/700 designs, which showed greatly improved performance. The aerodynamic design of the W2/700 was adopted by Rolls-Royce for their very successful Derwent V engine, which won a world airspeed record of 606 m.p.h. in a Meteor in 1945.

At Power Jets, Whittle had ambitious plans for new engines, including a fan jet, based upon axial flow compressors, together with a supersonic aircraft project with the Miles Aircraft Company. In April 1944 the government nationalized Power Jets, the private shareholders accepting the sum of £135,563 10s. for the company's assets. A new company, Power Jets (Research and Development) Ltd, was established, the gas turbine division of the Royal Aircraft Establishment being amalgamated with it. The engine and supersonic aircraft projects were cancelled, and the key members of the Power Jets team resigned and were snapped up by industry. The remaining Power Jets offices and workshops became part of the National Gas Turbine establishment, and Whittle was no longer connected with them. He became increasingly involved in a taxing programme of lectures in both Britain and the United States. He retired from the RAF on 26 August 1948 with the substantive rank of air commodore; he had been made a KBE in the birthday honours list, had received a £100,000 award from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, and had been elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society.

For the next thirty years Whittle continued to receive national, industrial, and academic awards, culminating in the Charles Stark Draper prize of $375,000, which he shared with Dr Hans von Ohain, the pioneer of jet propulsion in Germany. From 1948 to 1952 he was honorary technical adviser to the British Overseas Airways Corporation and travelled extensively. In the intervals between his travels he worked on the text of Jet—the Story of a Pioneer, which was published in 1953. This aroused great interest and was subsequently reprinted in paperback. He had an assignment as technical adviser to Shell Research, which led to his conceiving a novel type of oil-well drill. This was developed in conjunction with Bristol Siddeley Engines (later Rolls-Royce Bristol engine division) but had to be shelved in 1970 owing to the financial crisis at Rolls-Royce. From 1963 until 1976 he lived at Chagford in Devon, where he was looked after by his devoted secretary, Margaret Lawrence.

In 1976 Whittle was divorced from his first wife, from whom he had been separated since 1952. He emigrated to the USA and in the same year married Hazel S. Hall, a nurse and air hostess. They made their home in Columbia, Maryland, and Whittle held a research appointment at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. His second book, Gas Turbine Aero-Thermodynamics, with Special Reference to Aircraft Propulsion (1981), was based upon his lectures there. He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1986 and in his last years was actively developing schemes for large supersonic passenger aircraft. He died of lung cancer at his home, Apartment 707, 10001 Windstream Drive, Columbia, Maryland, on 9 August 1996. He was survived by his second wife, and by the two sons of his first marriage. His ashes were interred at the RAF College, Cranwell, on 10 September 1998.


  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004) [family; M. Lawrence]
  • F. Whittle, Jet—the story of a pioneer (1953)
  • papers, CAC Cam.
  • G. Jones, The jet pioneers (1989)
  • J. Golley, Whittle—the true story (1987)
  • S. Hooker, Not much of an engineer (1984)
  • D. S. Brooks, Vikings at Waterloo: the wartime work on the Whittle jet engine by the Rover Company (1997)
  • G. B. R. Feilden and W. Hawthorne, Memoirs FRS, 44 (1998), 433–52
  • The Times (10 Aug 1996)
  • Daily Telegraph (10 Aug 1996)


  • CAC Cam., personal and research papers
  • Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, letters and papers, AC 96/S4
  • RS
  • TNA: PRO, official corresp. and papers, AIR 62


  • VHS tapes of broadcasts


  • VHS tapes of broadcasts
  • tapes of sound broadcasts


  • photographs, 1948–70, Hult. Arch.
  • E. I. Halliday, oils, 1960, RAF Cranwell, Lincolnshire [see illus.]
  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1970
  • D. Buckland, cibachrome print, 1987, NPG
  • drawing, repro. in The Times

Wealth at Death

$673,193: orphans court, Howard county, Maryland, USA, 25 June 1997

Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society
Churchill College, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge