Whittle’s interest in aviation helped him serve as aircraft apprentice for Royal Air Force (RAF). However, due to diminutive stature, he started training as an aircraft mechanic.
He enrolled in the officer training program in RAF Cranwell. The training gave him his first flying experience. Whittle soon gained a reputation for daredevil low flying and aerobatics.
While a cadet, Whittle submitted a thesis on potential aircraft design developments through which he argued that for flights to fly at high altitudes, with greater speed and covering longer range, a new motor engine would be required.
In 1928, he graduated from Royal Air Force College to be commissioned as a Pilot Officer. He joined No. 111 Squadron, flying over the Siskin Ills. Following year, he was posted to the Central Flying School for flying instructor’s course.
It was while in Central Flying School that Whittle’s engine concept gained attention. The design was appreciated by Flying Officer Pat Johnson who soon took it to the commanding officer.
By 1929, Whittle sent his engine design to Air Ministry who first turned it down blaming it to be impracticable. As such, left with no choice, Whittle patented the idea himself.
In 1930, Whittle was promoted to the rank of Flying Officer. Following year, he was posted at the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe as an armament officer and test pilot of seaplanes. Despite having no previous knowledge, he gained a reputation for flying 20 different types of floatplanes, flying boats, and amphibians.
In 1932, he attended the Officer’s Engineering Course at RAF Henlow, Bedfordshire. His exceptional performance led him to take up a two-year engineering course at the Cambridge University in 1934. Same year, he was promoted as Flight Lieutenant.
In 1935, the renewal for his jet engine patent was looming. With no means to pay, the patent lapsed. During this time, he befriended Rolf Dudley Williams and James Collingwood Tinling who promised to gather financial support from Sir Maurice Bonham-Carter and Lancelot Law Whyte.
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Having gained approval from Air Ministry and finding monetary assistance, Whittle founded Power Jets Ltd. Being a full-time RAF officer and a Cambridge student, Whittle took up the title of Honorary Chief Engineer and Technical Consultant at Power Jets Ltd. He started working on the development of turbo jet engine.
In April 1937, test runs for Whittle first turbo jet engine was made at the BTH works in Rugby. It was the world’s first turbo jet unit and was named W.U. (Whittle’s Unit). Realizing the potential of the new engine, the Air Ministry financially backed Whittle’s project for further development. They placed an order for a flyable version of the engine.
With the onset of World War II, the British government became keener on supporting Whittle’s Unit. By April 1941, the new engine which received the named W1 was ready for flight testing. The maiden flight testing was made on May 15, 1941 of an allied Turbo-jet, the Gloster E28/39 at Cranwell. It flew for 17 minutes at a top speed of 340mph. Within days, the aircraft reached 370 mph at 25000 ft.
Following the successful maiden flight, news of the powerful jet engine reached the American shores. By October 1942, the Americans came up with their Bell XP-59A Airacomet.
The Air Ministry issued a contract for mass production of 3000 W2 engines for Gloster Meteor to Rover Company. However, due to the latter’s failure to meet the demand, the contract was handed over to the Rolls Royce in 1943.
In 1943, Whittle rose to the rank of Wing Commander. Same year, he proposed nationalization of jet developments. This was basically suggested because he knew that private companies would greatly benefit from the technology during the war. Also, nationalization would secure easy repayment of debts.
By 1944, the British finally set their hands on the jet fighter with Rolls Royce engines that were designed by Frank Whittle. Power Jets started to develop the W2/700 and the final engine built was fitted with Afterburning/Reheat, which was to be used on the Miles 52 Supersonic Aircraft Experimental Project. Same year, he became Group Captain.
In 1946, he was made Air Commodore. He resigned from Power Jets after it was nationalized and merged with Gas Turbine section of RAE to form National Gas Turbine Establishment.
In 1948, he retired from RAF with the rank of Air Commodore. In his latter life, he took up various works such as BOAC’s technical advisor, Shell Oil’s and Bristol Aero Engine’s mechanical engineer, United States Naval Academy as NAVAIR Research Professor, and so on. He also penned a biography, ‘Jet: The Story of a Pioneer’
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Whittle’s major contribution has been as the inventor of jet engine. It was while working on his thesis that the idea first struck him of a powerful engine that would allow flights at high altitude and greater speed. To pursue the same, he set on a mission and soon realized it when the first prototype of the jet engine came into being in 1937.
For his remarkable contribution in the development of jet engine, he was bestowed with numerous honors including Order of the Merit, Order of the Bath, Louis E Levy Medal, Commander of the Legion of Merit, Royal Society of Arts Albert Medal, and so on.
He was made Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Military Division.
He was made Fellow of the Royal Society and Honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Together with von Ohain, he won the Charles Strak Draper Prize for their work on turbojet engines.
Personal Life & Legacy
On May 24, 1930, Whittle first married Dorothy Mary Lee. The couple was blessed with two sons, David and Ian.
In 1976, he divorced Dorothy and married American Hazel S Hall and emigrated to US.
Over the course of his life, Whittle suffered from health issues. He faced stress related ailments and took drugs to keep him wide awake through the day and fast asleep by the night.
He breathed his last on August 9, 1996 due to lung cancer at his home in Columbia, Maryland. After being incinerated in America, his ashes were taken to England where they were kept in a church in Cranwell.