Apr 122016


On this date in 1937 Frank Whittle ground tested the first ever turbojet which he had virtually single handedly designed and built. Whittle’s whole life story is one of triumph over obstacles by sheer guts and determination. His story is also one of brilliance versus the stupidity of “the system,” a story that is seemingly endlessly retold.

Whittle was born in Earlsdon, Coventry, in 1907, and when he was nine years old, the family moved to Royal Leamington Spa where his father, a highly inventive practical engineer and mechanic, purchased the Leamington Valve and Piston Ring Company.  Frank followed in his father’s footsteps at an early age, learning to use the equipment at his father’s company. At the age of 15, determined to be a pilot, Whittle applied to join the RAF.

In January 1923, having passed the RAF entrance examination with a high mark, Whittle reported to RAF Halton as an Aircraft Apprentice. He lasted only two days: being just five feet tall and with a small chest measurement, he failed the medical. He then put himself through a vigorous training program and special diet devised by a physical training instructor at Halton to build up his physique, only to fail again six months later, when he was told that he could not be given a second chance, despite having added three inches to his height and chest. Undeterred, he applied again under an assumed name and presented himself as a candidate at the No 2 School of Technical Training RAF Cranwell. This time he passed the physical and, in September that year, 364365 Boy Whittle, F started his three-year training as an aircraft mechanic.


Whittle hated the strict discipline imposed on apprentices and, convinced there was no hope of ever becoming a pilot he at one time seriously considered deserting. However, throughout his early days as an aircraft apprentice (and at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell), he maintained his interest in model aircraft and joined the Model Aircraft Society, where he built working replicas. The quality of these attracted the eye of the Apprentice Wing commanding officer, who noted that Whittle was also a mathematical genius. He was so impressed that in 1926 he recommended Whittle for officer training at RAF College Cranwell.

Whittle’s officer training included flying lessons on the Avro 504. He excelled in all his courses and had his first solo flight in 1927 after only 13.5 hours instruction, quickly progressing to the Bristol Fighter and gaining a reputation for daredevil low flying and aerobatics. A requirement of the course was that each student had to produce a thesis for graduation: Whittle decided to write his on potential aircraft design developments, notably flight at high altitudes and speeds over 500 mph (800 km/h). In Future Developments in Aircraft Design he showed that incremental improvements in existing propeller engines were unlikely to make such flight routine. Instead he described what is today referred to as a motorjet; a motor using a conventional piston engine to provide compressed air to a combustion chamber whose exhaust was used directly for thrust – essentially an afterburner attached to a propeller engine.

Whittle graduated in 1928 at the age of 21 and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in July. He ranked second in his class in academics, won the Andy Fellowes Memorial Prize for Aeronautical Sciences for his thesis, and was described as an “exceptional to above average” pilot. However, his flight logbook also showed numerous red ink warnings about showboating and overconfidence, and because of dangerous flying in an Armstrong Whitworth Siskin he was disqualified from the end of term flying contest.


Whittle continued working on the motorjet principle after his thesis work but eventually abandoned it when further calculations showed it would weigh as much as a conventional engine of the same thrust. Pondering the problem he wrote, “Why not substitute a turbine for the piston engine?” Instead of using a piston engine to provide the compressed air for the burner, a turbine could be used to extract some power from the exhaust and drive a similar compressor to those used for superchargers. The remaining exhaust thrust would power the aircraft.

On 27 August 1928 Whittle joined No. 111 Squadron, Hornchurch, flying Siskin IIIs. His continuing reputation for low flying and aerobatics provoked a public complaint that almost led to his being court-martialed. Within a year he was posted to Central Flying School, Wittering, for a flying instructor’s course. He became a popular and gifted instructor, and was selected as one of the entrants in a competition to select a team to perform the “crazy flying” routine in the 1930 Royal Air Force Air Display at RAF Hendon. He destroyed two aircraft in accidents during rehearsals but remained unscathed on both occasions. After the second incident an enraged Flight Lieutenant Harold W. Raeburn said furiously, “Why don’t you take all my bloody aeroplanes, make a heap of them in the middle of the aerodrome and set fire to them – it’s quicker!”

Whittle showed his engine concept around the base, where it attracted the attention of Flying Officer Pat Johnson, formerly a patent examiner. Johnson, in turn, took the concept to the commanding officer of the base. This set in motion a chain of events that almost led to the engines being produced much sooner than actually occurred. Encouraged by his commanding officer, in late 1929 Whittle sent his concept of the turbojet to the Air Ministry to see if it would be of any interest to them. The RAF returned his comment to Whittle, referring to the design as being “impracticable”.

Pat Johnson remained convinced of the validity of the idea, and had Whittle patent the idea in January 1930. Since the RAF was not interested in the concept they did not declare it secret, meaning that Whittle was able to retain the rights to the idea, which would have otherwise been their property. Johnson arranged a meeting with British Thomson-Houston (BTH), whose chief turbine engineer seemed to agree with the basic idea. However, BTH did not want to spend the ₤60,000 it would cost to develop it, and this potential brush with early success went no further.


In 1931, Whittle was posted to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe as an armament officer and test pilot of seaplanes, where he continued to publicize his idea. This posting came as a surprise for he had never previously flown a seaplane, but he nevertheless increased his reputation as a pilot by flying some 20 different types of floatplanes, flying boats, and amphibians. Every officer with a permanent commission was expected to take a specialist course, and as a result Whittle attended the Officers’ Engineering Course at RAF Henlow, Bedfordshire in 1932. He obtained an aggregate of 98% in all subjects in his exams, completing the course in 18 months instead of the more normal two years. His performance in the course was so exceptional that in 1934 he was permitted to take a two-year engineering course at Cambridge University, graduating in 1936 with a First in the Mechanical Sciences Tripos.

Still at Cambridge, Whittle could not afford the £5 renewal fee for his jet engine patent when it became due in January 1935, and because the Air Ministry refused to pay it, the patent was allowed to lapse. Shortly afterwards, in May, he received mail from Rolf Dudley-Williams, who had been with him at Cranwell in the 1920s and Felixstowe in 1930. Williams arranged a meeting with Whittle, himself, and another now-retired RAF serviceman, James Collingwood Tinling. The two proposed a partnership that allowed them to act on Whittle’s behalf to gather public financing so that development could go ahead.


In 1935, through Tinling’s father, Whittle was introduced to Mogens L. Bramson, a well-known independent consulting aeronautical engineer. Bramson was initially skeptical but after studying Whittle’s ideas became an enthusiastic supporter. Bramson introduced Whittle and his two associates to the investment bank O.T. Falk & Partners, where discussions took place with Lancelot Law Whyte and occasionally Sir Maurice Bonham-Carter. The firm had an interest in developing speculative projects that conventional banks would not touch. Whyte was impressed by the 28-year-old Whittle and his design when they met on 11 September 1935:

The impression he made was overwhelming, I have never been so quickly convinced, or so happy to find one’s highest standards met. This was genius, not talent. Whittle expressed his idea with superb conciseness: ‘Reciprocating engines are exhausted. They have hundreds of parts jerking to and fro, and they cannot be made more powerful without becoming too complicated. The engine of the future must produce 2,000 hp with one moving part: a spinning turbine and compressor.’

On 27 January 1936, the principals signed the “Four Party Agreement”, creating “Power Jets Ltd” which was incorporated in March 1936. The parties were O.T. Falk & Partners, the Air Ministry, Whittle and, together, Williams and Tinling. Whittle, Williams and Tinling retained a 49% share of the company in exchange for Falk and Partners putting in £2,000 with the option of a further £18,000 within 18 months. As Whittle was still a full-time RAF officer and currently at Cambridge, he was given the title “Honorary Chief Engineer and Technical Consultant”. Needing special permission to work outside the RAF, he was placed on the Special Duty List and allowed to work on the design as long as it was for no more than six hours a week. However he was allowed to continue at Cambridge for a year doing post-graduate work which gave him time to work on the turbojet.


The Air Ministry still saw little immediate value in the effort (they regarded it as long-range research), and having no production facilities of its own, Power Jets entered into an agreement with steam turbine specialists British Thomson-Houston (BTH) to build an experimental engine facility at a BTH factory in Rugby, Warwickshire. Work progressed quickly, and by the end of the year 1936 the prototype detail design was finalized and parts for it were well on their way to being completed, all within the original £2,000 budget.

The government and RAF still displayed complete indifference, so Falk and Partners gave notice that they could not provide funding beyond £5,000. Nevertheless Whittle’s team pressed ahead, and the W.U. (Whittle Unit) engine ran in a ground test successfully on 12 April 1937. Tizard pronounced it “streaks ahead” of any other advanced engine he had seen, and managed to interest the Air Ministry enough to fund development with a contract for £5,000 to develop a flyable version. However, it was a year before the funds were made available, greatly delaying development. Whittle was ultimately successful in using his jet in prototype aircraft but one does have to wonder what took officialdom so long to recognize the clear advantage of jets over propellers, and to be inspired by Whittle’s dogged insistence on the rightness of his vision.

Last Night A Short Flight Was Completed

As an RAF pilot Whittle was stationed in a number of places in Britain, but he was not only native to Warwickshire (Coventry and Leamington), but developed the jet there too (Rugby).  I’m very familiar with that part of the country, having lived and worked in Leamington for a time after Oxford, and also having relatives near Coventry. I have especially fond memories of Coventry godcakes which are common in regional bakeries, but you won’t find elsewhere.  Folklore has it that they were originally given as gifts to new parents by godparents. Sounds like a simple rationalization of the name to me.  Nonetheless, they are delicious and easy to make.

All you need are some puff pastry and mincemeat. Puff pastry is a real trial to make, so I rarely make it from scratch these days (see  yesterday’s post https://www.bookofdaystales.com/william-and-mary/ ) Instead I buy it readymade. If you’re lazy you can buy readymade mincemeat too, but I always make my own. However, I make it only at Christmas, so godcakes are a seasonal treat for me nowadays.


Coventry Godcakes

Cut puff pastry into 4” squares. Place 1 tablespoon of mincemeat towards the edge of one of the points of the square. Brush the edges of the pastry with melted butter , then fold over the pastry diagonally to make a triangle to encase the mincemeat, pressing the edges together. Cut three parallel slits in the top, brush with melted butter, and sprinkle with caster sugar. Bake at 350°F for 20 minutes, or until the godcakes are golden. They are best eaten warm from the oven.