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Obituaries: Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle

A lecture by Frank Whittle was a refreshing cocktail of technical brilliance, laced with bubbly humour and occasionally spiked with a quip or joke to avoid any sign of pomposity. For his listeners, aware that they were in the company of an eminent Englishman and one of the greatest engineers of all time, it was an unforgettable experience.

In today's fast-moving world most of us take the jet engine for granted, as it powers us to almost every corner of the globe. It is easy to forget that by inventing and giving birth to the turbojet, Whittle changed the lives of countless millions of people throughout the world. Few of us know that it was Whittle's engine that introduced America to the jet age, or that (after losing seven years failing to gain any support) he still gave Britain a two- to three-year lead in jet technology immediately after the Second World War. However, many across the globe still identify him as the jet pioneer, and his name is indelibly printed in the annals of aviation history and technology. The former prime minister Margaret Thatcher wrote: "His life and work are an object lesson on the creativity and inspiration of British engineering at its best. He has always retained the great gift of original thought and exposition."

Frank Whittle had to struggle to realise his objectives. He was one of a minority of great inventors to be reared in a working-class background, haunted by the shadow of poverty, as he said, "a street urchin on six days a week and carefully dressed little boy on Sunday".

An early fascination for aeroplanes and interest in the sciences, including science fiction, made him determined to become an RAF pilot. From the age of 10 he learnt to use machine tools, and the implements of the draughtsman's trade in his father's workshop. He then won a scholarship to Leamington College, which led to his joining the RAF as a boy apprentice at the age of 16.

After three years of harsh discipline and first-class training as a fitter, 364365 Apprentice Whittle, F. was one of five boy entrants out of 600 to win a cadetship, and his dream of becoming a pilot was within his grasp. The two years 1926 to 1928 were formative. Whittle was physically small, disliked team games, pursued the cult of the individual; he was hardly the sort of chap who would appeal to the more flamboyant and team-spirited ex-public-school fraternity. Although apprenticeship training had given him certain advantages, particularly in the workshops, the social gap was wide.

However, the first flower of his genius was to blossom at RAF Cranwell, where he had become more and more engrossed in science and was at his best in physics, mathematics and the theory of flight. At the age of 21, in 1928, he wrote a thesis entitled "Future Developments in Aircraft Design". He envisaged speeds of over 500mph in the stratosphere, at heights where the air density was less than one-quarter of its sea-level value (he had covered the properties of the atmosphere in an earlier thesis). He was awarded full marks by Professor Sinnatt, who said, "I couldn't quite follow everything you have written, Whittle. But I can't find anything wrong with it." This thesis was to change the course of his life and sowed the seed of a revolution in aviation.

At that time, his ideas were considered by many to be in the realms of fantasy, or science fiction. The maximum speed of front-line fighters then was rather less than 150mph, and they had a service ceiling of only 20,000ft. But this was no dream on Whittle's part. His calculations had proved it possible.

The pursuit of excellence in everything he tackled became Whittle's hallmark. And so it was with his flying. He was assessed as "Exceptional to Above Average". For a short phase in his life being a fighter pilot was his forte, and he gave full rein to the "dare-devil" spirit within him. He had become an officer and a gentleman, elated by his pilot's wings; he had fallen in love with Dorothy Lee from an affluent middle-class family.

However, his proposed engine was never far from his thoughts. Nineteen thirty proved a dramatic year for him. On 16 January he filed the Provisional Specification for his turbojet, and on 24 May he married Dorothy Lee in Coventry. On 24 June he participated in the Hendon Air Display, performing his crazy flying routine, and proved finally that he could do better than the vast majority of his public-school contemporaries, both in the air and on the ground.

The RAF, to its credit, had realised that Whittle was a budding mathematical genius and, after he had completed the officers' engineering course at Henlow, sent him to Cambridge University. There he worked around the clock, primarily engrossed in his engine project, and endeavouring to keep pace with his studies. By 1935, he had gathered three accomplices: W.E.P. Johnson, R. Dudley-Williams, and J.C.B. Tinling. These three RAF pilots became partners, and made an invaluable contribution to his project.

By 1936 Whittle's turbojet patent had lapsed, and he had almost given up the idea of ever seeing a turbojet constructed. The breakthrough came when O.T. Falk, a small firm of investment bankers headed by Oswald Falk, a friend and colleague of Maynard Keynes, asked M.L. Bramson to pronounce on the validity of the idea. Falk advanced a small sum, enabling Whittle to form a company and design an actual engine.

Thus 1936 was a year of opportunity. Whittle had graduated with First Class honours in the Mechanical Sciences Tripos, and was granted a postgraduate year. During this period of intense activity, Power Jets Ltd was formed and arrangements made to build the WU (Whittle Unit) engine. Whittle's contribution to date had been to explore the association of jet propulsion and the gas turbine. Historically the gas turbine had been regarded, like other turbines, as a machine for supplying shaft power. Whittle recognised it as the ideal means of providing jet propulsion for aircraft.

The Air Ministry allowed him to act as Honorary Chief Engineer and Technical Consultant to Power Jets for five years, on the basis that it was to be "a very spare-time job". British Thomson-Houston accepted a contract on a cost-plus basis, having rejected his proposals five years previously. Short of capital and having to travel the country in his quest for new materials able to withstand the high temperatures involved, Whittle and his team began building the turbojet. Apart from original design work he was involved in fighting battles on all fronts, not least with civil servants whose attitude remained cynical and uncompromising.

On 12 April 1937, at the age of 29, Whittle experienced the supreme moment of his life. Absorbed in the fantastic excitement of new discovery, smelling the kerosene, and hearing the thunderous roar of the engine he had created, he had achieved the first run of a turbojet. But further development work was required. Lacking finance and official recognition in high places, Whittle's triumph ended in a battle for survival. Had he received his due official backing when he had been granted his patent in 1931, the RAF might well have been equipped with jet fighters before the Battle of Britain.

Aero-engine manufacturers had enormous vested interests in piston-engine power to protect. They did not want to scrap everything that they had worked for, or to start learning a new technology. They saw the turbojet as a potential rival to their cherished engines, and followed the prevailing belief that gas turbines did not work. It was not until 1939 that Whittle received Air Ministry production contracts for the W.1 flight engine, and the Gloster/Whittle E.28/39 aircraft - Britain's first jet.

The E.28/39 made its maiden flight on 15 May 1941, by which time all major aircraft companies were anxious to become involved and so were the United States, via General "Hap" Arnold. Within six months Whittle engines were being made in the US, and soon America had more jet aircraft than existed in Britain. At home, plans had been formulated for the production of the Meteor, Britain's first jet fighter. This had been Whittle's goal.

Leslie Cheshire of BTH, who worked with him, said,

The thing that I most remember about Frank Whittle was his total absorption in what he was doing - a total concentration which impinged itself on the atmosphere surrounding him. It was very hard for anybody to evaluate him, because he was a many-sided person who had a charming naivete. He trusted people, and believed that everybody was motivated by common good.

In May 1942 he was sent to the US to do whatever he could to help the Americans with their own development of his engine. Whittle was impressed by the vitality and breadth of vision incorporated in the American system, once his project had been accepted. It made him feel good, and it showed more than ever what might have been achieved if he himself had had such backing when he ran his first turbojet in April 1937.

But his visit proved invaluable in other respects. He proved to the Americans, at the highest level, that Britain was in the forefront of aviation technology. The timing was perfect because the war was going badly on all fronts, and Britain needed prestige in America. Lend-Lease agreements were being negotiated and the Atlantic was fast becoming a highway for the interchange of British and US Army Air Forces personnel. Apart from introducing America to the jet age, Whittle's visit proved of major significance in uplifting British technology, and promoting understanding between the two countries.

But years of tension and strain had taken their toll, and Whittle was suffering bouts of illness which were to recur over a long period. In spite of this he relentlessly carried on his work, determined to give the RAF a jet fighter. It was he who had created and given birth to the turbojet, and he was well aware that he was the key figure in its development as a weapon of war. This required not only his genius, but his driving force and singleness of purpose, which set him apart from lesser mortals, and enabled him to overcome political and bureaucratic frustrations.

That the Ministry of Aircraft Production did not take the pressure off him and give him full support to allow him to get on with the job is well documented and part of history. By the time his technological victory was complete, control of development passed into other hands. When Rolls- Royce came on the scene in 1943, Whittle's vital invention at last took off in Britain. The late Sir Stanley Hooker (formerly of Rolls-Royce who took over engine development) said of him:

Whittle had an unrivalled grasp of the fundamentals of thermodynamics and aerodynamics, and he never did anything until he had given it the deepest and most logical consideration. As I came to understand his work, I realised that he had laid down the performance of jet engines with the precision of Newton, a feat whose magnitude he never appeared to appreciate.

For the preceding 30 years the performance of piston engines in flight was known only to a very rough approximation based on inaccurate empirical formulae, yet Whittle predicted what a jet engine would do before he had ever made one. His formulae are still used unchanged. They are of such precision that it is more accurate to calculate the performance of jet engines, including the most modern fan engines, than it is to attempt to measure it either in flight or in the astronomically costly test plants, which attempt to simulate flight conditions on the ground. And this is true from take-off to the speed of Concorde, and beyond.

Invalided out of the RAF as an Air Commodore in 1948, Whittle received an award of pounds 100,000, on the recommendation of the Royal Commission. A few days later he was created KBE in the Birthday Honours List, and invested with his knighthood by King George VI in July 1948. He said: "As the King touched me on each shoulder with the sword, I became the first Old Cranwellian to receive the honour of knighthood. The satisfaction which this gave me was overshadowed by my regret that I was leaving the Service in which I had served since the age of 16, and which had given me the training which made possible the jet engine."

The saddest time for him was to see the break-up of his pioneer team. "One consequence," he said, "was the cancellation of important projects, notably the LR.1 which should have been the world's first turbofan. It was half complete when stopped. And then the power plant for the M.52 [the Miles supersonic aircraft] went down the drain - also nearing completion."

But Whittle never gave up. In the 1950s he planned Comet jetliner operations for BOAC, in the 1960s he developed the radical Turbodrill for drilling through the earth's crust as Technical Adviser to Bristol Siddeley Engines (later Rolls-Royce). Emigrating to the US in 1976 he married his second wife, Hazel Hall, and became a Research Professor at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, in Maryland. Throughout, he lectured across the globe and was sought after by leading aviation companies for advice and consultation, applying his mathematical genius to future developments in supersonic aviation.

The RAF had been Whittle's mentor since he became a young boy apprentice. He was a product of the Service, retaining the style and humour characterising an RAF officer. That as a young engineering officer he revolutionised a great traditional industry is a measure of his genius. The fantastic development in civil and military aviation during post-war years rates still higher the magnitude of his continuing contribution to technological progress.

When Power Jets was nationalised, becoming the National Gas Turbine Establishment, Whittle surrendered all his shares and rights, stating: "My belief is that a serving officer should not be in a position to benefit from his employment in any commercial sense." Thus, his financial recompense for inventing the jet engine rested with those responsible for making awards. Therein lies not only his total sense of duty to the Service he loved, but his resolution, and high moral character.

John Golley

Frank Whittle, air force officer and engineer: born Coventry 1 June 1907; RAF Special Duty List, attached to Power Jets Ltd 1937-46; CBE 1944, KBE 1948; Technical Adviser to Controller of Supplies (Air), Ministry of Supply 1946-48; CB 1947; FRS 1947; Honorary Technical Adviser, Jet Aircraft, BOAC 1948-42; consultant, Bristol Siddeley Engines/Rolls-Royce 1961-70; RDI 1985; OM 1986; married 1930 Dorothy Lee (two sons; marriage dissolved 1976), 1976 Hazel Hall; died Columbia, Maryland 9 August 1996.