Frank Whittle: Facts About the Inventor of the Jet Engine

Frank Whittle was an officer in the Royal Air Force, an engineer, and an inventor. He is best known for inventing the turbojet engine.

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Facts About Frank Whittle

  • Frank Whittle was born in Coventry in 1907. His family moved to Royal Leamington Spa when he was nine years old, and his father ran the Leamington Valve and Piston Ring Company.
  • Frank Whittle learned to use all of the tools at his father’s workplace, and he became very knowledgeable about the company’s single-cylinder gas engine.
  • He attended Milverton School and Leamington College for Boys, and he was an avid reader, spending much of his free time in the library learning about engineering, turbines, aviation, and the theory of flight.
  • When he was fifteen years old, he decided to become a pilot and he completed an application to join the RAF.
  • In 1923, Frank Whittle passed the RAF entrance examination and reported to RAF Halton (Buckinghamshire) to start as an Aircraft Apprentice. Unfortunately, due to his small stature (he was only 5′ 2″ tall) and narrow frame, he failed the medical assessment.
  • Undeterred, Frank Whittle focused on improving his physique and applied to the RAF again using a different name. This time he was accepted, and in September 1923 he began the three-year training to become an aircraft mechanic.
  • During his time in RAF training, Frank Whittle joined the Model Aircraft Society. He built several high-quality working replicas of planes, and these were noticed by one of his commanding officers. This, combined with the fact that Frank Whittle was an exceptional mathematician, resulted in Frank Whittle being put forward for officer training at RAF College Cranwell.
  • Part of the training at Cranwell involved flying an Avro 504 biplane, and after just 13.5 hours of tuition, Frank Whittle flew solo for the first time. He soon moved on to fly Bristol Fighters and became known for his skillful flying maneuvers.
  • Frank Whittle graduated in 1928 (ranking second in his class for academics) and was commissioned as a pilot officer at the age of just 21.
  • While at Cranwell, he wrote a thesis called Future Developments in Aircraft Design. He discussed using motorjets and argued for the benefits of flying at high altitudes.
  • In 1928, he joined No 111 Squadron based at Hornchurch, and he soon went on to become a flying instructor at the Central Flying School at Wittering.
  • In 1930, Whittle patented his idea to use turbine engines instead of piston engines to make his motorjet principles a reality. He previously shared his ideas with the RAF, but their top engineers had decided that Whittle’s concepts would be impracticable.
  • In 1931, Frank Whittle was posted to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe, Suffolk. As part of his work, he piloted more than twenty different types of seaplanes and flying boats.
  • He attended Peterhouse College, Cambridge in 1934, and graduated two years later with a degree in Mechanical Sciences.
  • In 1936, Frank Whittle signed an agreement with OT Falk, the Air Ministry, Rolf Dudley-Williams, and James Collingwood Tinling to form a company called Power Jets Ltd.
  • Power Jets worked with British Thomson Houston (a steam turbine company) to manufacture the first prototype jet engine design.
  • At the same time as the Power Jets prototype was being made, a German group of engineers was working on their own jet engine design. With the support of the German Ministry of Aviation, their efforts made it into the air first. But the German engines continually overheated and would only last a maximum of 25 hours before burning out. It is estimated that more than 200 pilots lost their lives during training in Messerschmitt Me 262s powered by the Junkers Jumo 004 turbojet engine, but these planes proved to be very effective late on in World War 2, shooting down more than 500 Allied planes.
  • Whittle worked increasingly hard to turn his ideas of an efficient and reliable working jet engine into a reality. He frequently worked 16-hour days, and he suffered from headaches and heart palpitations.
  • In 1939, Frank Whittle finally managed to convince the Air Ministry to invest more heavily in his design. After proving that the technology was sustainable, the Air Ministry purchased the Power Jets company, and Frank Whittle was made Chief Technical Advisor. He received a payment of £10,000 (a much lower sum than the value of the shares he owned in Power Jets). He resigned in 1946.
  • In 1948, he received a payment of £100,000 from the Royal Commission on Awards to recognize the contribution he had made to developing the jet engine. He left the RAF in the same year with the rank of Air Commodore.
  • He worked for Shell in the 1950s, and then he went on to work for Bristol Aero Engines.
  • In 1967, Frank Whittle is inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame.
  • In the 1960s, he became good friends with one of the leading German engineers (part of the group he had competed with when he was prototyping his jet engine), Hans von Ohain.

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 500 mph 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.

Hans von Ohain on Frank Whittle
  • Frank Whittle died in 1996 at his home in Columbia, Maryland, US. He was 89.
  • Frank Whittle has been commemorated in his birthplace of Coventry with the Whittle Arch (located outside the Coventry Transport Museum), and a statue created by Faith Winter. There is also a Sir Frank Whittle Primary School and the Frank Whittle building at Coventry University.
  • Frank Whittle was knighted in 1948.