The man who shrank the world

The death of Sir Frank Whittle has deprived us of a rare talent, writes Charles Arthur
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Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine - the machine which, more than any other, has truly made the world into a global village - died yesterday aged 79, after a long battle with lung cancer.

Sir Frank died at his home near Baltimore, in the US, where he had lived since 1976, working on the next generation of supersonic aircraft, including a Concorde capable of 2,500 mph. Speaking about his plans in 1987, he said: "The technology is feasible. The only hold-up is money, just as it always was."

Sir Peter Masefield, the former chief of British European Airways (later British Airways), who was a close friend for 50 years, described him as "a great man who changed the face of aviation". Other citations during his life described him as "the father of the jet age".

Born in Coventry in June, 1907, Sir Frank's origins were solidly British and working-class. He was also one of the last survivors from what is often seen as a golden age of British invention.

His revolutionary concept, which put Britain at the forefront of the jet age, arose from his science thesis, written in 1928, when he was a young cadet at RAF Cranwell. He patented the idea of the jet engine in 1930, but found the road to success paved with indifference, and progress repeatedly blocked.

The jet engine works by taking a large volume of slow-moving air at its intake, then compressing it and igniting a fuel mixture which is then forced at high speed from the exhaust. The maths is straightforward, but building the engine was not.

The Air Ministry dismissed the concept and told him development difficulties were too great. In 1934, the Secretary of State for Air wrote: "We do not consider that we should be justified in spending any time or money on it."

The Government failed to see the strategic importance of jet aircraft, and did not keep the patent secret. Undaunted, in 1935 he formed a private company with two RAF colleagues, funded by a pounds 2,000 loan from a firm of investment bankers. They began building their engines, sometimes using reclaimed scrap metal. Finally, in 1939, the Air Ministry conceded that Sir Frank's tiny experimental engine was the basis of a power plant that could take aeroplanes to unparalleled heights and speeds.

On May 15, 1941, Sir Frank's obdurate approach was crowned with success when, at Cranwell airfield, Lincolnshire, the Gloster-Whittle E28/39 became the first turbo-jet powered aircraft to fly successfully.

Jet fighter aircraft finally entered service in 1944, but Sir Frank always maintained they could have been used against Hitler years earlier in the Battle of Britain, but for the government's lack of interest and delays.

The first jet engines did not go into production until 1947. Sir Frank's plans, meanwhile, went to the US, which used them for its entire post- war aircraft industry.

He later bitterly criticised the nationalisation of jet propulsion development, saying it was responsible for Britain losing its world lead in jet engine technology.

Sir Frank was knighted in 1948 and received a reward of pounds 100,000 for his contribution to flight. In the same year, he retired from the RAF, with the rank of air commodore, on the grounds of ill-health.

Obituary, page 14