Frank Whittle knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up: a pilot. In 1922 at the age of 15, Frank applied to the Royal Air Force (RAF). He was turned down due to his small stature and was turned down again when he reapplied six months later. When Whittle was informed he wouldn’t be allowed to apply again, he reapplied under an assumed name. The third time proved to be the charm and Whittle entered the RAF as an aircraft mechanic. It didn’t take long for Whittle to get recommended for officer training by his commanding officer. The promotion meant a chance to become a commissioned officer and a pilot by completing the training course at RAF College Cranwell.
While at Cranwell, Whittle developed a reputation as an exceptional pilot and graduated second in his class. Despite his accolades, Whittle also earned numerous citations for dangerous flying habits such as showboating. His graduating thesis, “Future Developments in Aircraft Design”, won the Andy Fellowes Memorial Prize for Aeronautical Sciences on the strength of his thesis. The initial idea in his thesis was for a piston engine to push compressed air into a combustion chamber, like an afterburner, to improve the efficiency of aircraft engines.
After graduating, Whittle’s idea evolved to replace the piston engine with a turbine engine. He continued his ill-advised flying habits, ultimately generating complaints from the public for his low-level acrobatics which almost led to a court martial. In 1930, Whittle destroyed two aircraft while training for air shows. Each time, he managed to walk away without a scratch.
By that time, Whittle had submitted his novel concept to the Air Ministry for further development but the Ministry turned the “simple” design down as “impractical”. When the Ministry turned down the idea, it allowed Whittle to patent his design to claim the rights to it. Despite sparkling academic and airmanship accomplishments, Frank did not have enough money (roughly $375 USD in 2017) to renew his patent on the jet engine in 1935.
With that, one of the most important innovations in the history of aviation entered the public domain.
Along with two friends from the RAF, Whittle formed a partnership to attract financing to pursue development of the jet engine. After an independent study validated Whittle’s design, O.T. Falk & Partners agreed to finance Whittle’s endeavor and Power Jets Ltd., was formed. The Air Ministry placed Frank on Special Duty to give him the ability to work outside of the RAF but limited his involvement to six hours a week. By the end of 1936, the design of a prototype had been finalized and majority of the parts had been manufactured. With competing designs cropping up, one in Germany and an independent design in Britain, and operating on a shoe-string budget, Power Jets successfully ran a turbojet engine on April 12, 1937.
By July, the company ran out of money. As you might imagine, early versions of the jet engine proved to hard to control. A second successful test in March of 1938 was enough to finally convince the Ministry to support the project financially.
By the time WWII began in 1939, Whittle’s design had been outpaced by the effort in Germany. Still tight on money and aware of the importance his design could have on WWII, Whittle’s health deteriorated from the amount of stress. He suffered from headaches, indigestion, insomnia, anxiety, weight loss and started taking tranquilizers, sleeping pills, Benzedrine, and smoking non-stop to get through his 16-hour work days.
Whittle began flight testing while continually fighting with competing British designs. The Germans beat the British into the air by nine months but at a deadly cost: over 200 German pilots were killed during training. In 1942, Whittle was assigned to help GE begin the jet age in America.
Nervous exhaustion forced Whittle away from work sporadically during the war and, eventually, to retire from the RAF in 1948 as Air Commodore.
For his efforts, Whittle was awarded the Order of the Bath, the U.S. Legion of Merit, made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, three honorary doctorates, the Tony Jannus Award (1969), the Charles Stark Draper Prize, and made a member of the Order of Merit, Fellow of the Royal Society, and Royal Aeronautical Society. Frank Whittle passed away on August 9, 1996.