Born at Coventry in 1907, Frank Whittle became a Royal Air Force (RAF) apprentice in 1923. During the next several years he advanced to pilot, flight instructor, and RAF officer.
Between World War I and World War II, aircraft designers realized that propeller-driven planes were limited both in terms of velocity and optimal altitude. To reach speeds in excess of 350 miles (560 km) per hour, planes required larger internal combustion engines. Of course such engines meant additional weight, which would, ironically, slow down the aircraft and reduce propeller efficiency. This technical problem was aggravated by an atmospheric problem. Attempts during World War I to fly at extremely high altitudes--a definite tactical advantage--had been thwarted by the thinness of the air itself, which likewise reduced propeller as well as engine efficiency.
Whittle had been contemplating a solution to the matter for some time. In 1928 he learned that a French inventor had suggested using the gas turbine as anairplane's power source. Unlike the piston-driven engine then in use, the new engine would, according to Whittle, become more efficient at higher speedsdue to its tunnel design and compression of air by a supercharger, or turbocompressor.
Whittle patented his design in 1930 but was unable to convince the Air Ministry or outside interests to pursue his idea with further research. Advised bycolleagues that the gas turbines used in industry were too heavy and inefficient to serve his purpose, Whittle set out to prove the critics wrong. Those who believed in him helped set up funding in 1936 to launch Power Jets Ltd., acompany which just a year later succeeded in producing a demonstration turbojet engine. There were, however, numerous initial problems. The engine woreout quickly and had to be rebuilt; it lost several turbine blades that required replacing; combustion chambers had to be redesigned; bearings burned out;and fuel vaporizers malfunctioned. After all of these problems were corrected, Whittle's engine was placed in an experimental aircraft named the Gloster E28/39 in 1941. With later modifications, it was incorporated into the GlosterMeteor in 1944. Even though jet power and thrust have increased dramaticallysince the first flights of these airplanes, Whittle is remembered as a majorforce in the development of modern aeronautics.
In honor of his achievements, Whittle was knighted in 1948, and spent his later years as a research professor at the United States Naval Academy. He diedon August 8, 1996.
Sir Frank Whittle died of lung cancer on August 8, 1996, at his home in Columbia, Maryland.