Today is an excuse to focus on one of our scientific collections. Frank Whittle was born on 1 June 1907. He applied to join the RAF as an apprentice in 1923, but failed on account of being too short. After going through a strenuous physical exercise programme, he applied again six months later and was accepted. In 1926 he was offered a cadetship to the RAF College, Cranwell, and began training as a pilot. After passing out of the College in 1928, he undertook various flying duties including at the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment, Felixstowe, as a float plane test pilot. In 1934 he graduated from the Officers’ School of Engineering at Henlow with such exceptional results that he was sent to Cambridge to take the Mechanical Sciences Tripos.

While still at Cranwell Whittle wrote a thesis exploring the possibilities of flight at higher altitudes and speeds. He examined the potential of rocket propulsion and gas turbines but the idea of using a gas turbine for jet propulsion did not occur to him until the year after he left Cranwell. The Air Ministry believed the gas turbine to be completely impracticable but Whittle nevertheless took out a patent in 1930, and in 1935, the company called Power Jets Ltd was formed, with Whittle as Honorary Chief Engineer. By 1939 work had progressed sufficiently for the Air Ministry to place an order for a flight engine (the W.1) with Power Jets. The Gloster Aircraft Company was contracted to build an experimental aircraft, the E.28/39, which was to be powered by the W.1. The highly successful first test flights of E.28/39 on 15 May 1941 resulted in an expansion of the project and the beginning of co-operation between Britain and the USA on the development of the turbo-jet engine.

This hair-raising letter comes from Whittle’s early days as a test pilot: by the sound of it, he was lucky to live long enough to invent anything!


Report on catapult trials, Whittle Papers, WHTL A.59

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