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Frank Whittle: 1942 Jet Pioneer

Harold Cannon

The jet engine is among the greatest inventions of the 20th century. It changed the face of our planet and now permits 1.5 billion air passenger journeys a year. The 2010 documentary, Whittle - The Jet Pioneer, tells the story of Sir Frank Whittle, the aviator and engineer who invented the jet engine. A DVD of the documentary, told in dramatic style against the backdrop of World War II and a race against the Nazis for air superiority, was released on October 2, 2012, the 70th anniversary of the first U.S. jet flight.

As the Nazis took Europe into war, there was an intense race for air superiority between Germany and the Allies. It was Whittle who, at the age of 30, invented the gas turbine jet engine and changed the face of our planet. Hailed as the "father of jet propulsion," Whittle invented every form of gas turbine jet engine we know today.

Sir Frank Whittle tells his story in this feature-length documentary originally made for the History Channel UK. It includes exclusive interviews with veteran test pilot Captain Eric Brown and German jet pioneer Hans von Ohain. Their accounts are mixed with fantastic wartime color archive images of Whittle's first jet planes and more in a powerful and inspiring story filled with dramatic elements.

Sir Frank Whittle did not know that German physicist and airplane designer Hans von Ohain was also working on jet engines in the late 1930s. Whittle was the first to register a patent in 1930; however, Hans von Ohain's jet was the first to fly in August 1939. Sir Frank Whittle's first jet flew in 1941.

Spurred on by WWII, both German and British manufacturers started building turbojets in a race to be the first to put jet fighters into combat.

With no government support, Whittle and two retired Royal Air Force officers formed Power Jets Ltd. to make the world's first jet engine. Despite limited funding, Whittle built a prototype which first ran in 1937. By June 1939, Power Jets could barely afford to keep the lights on when skeptical British government scientists came to check Whittle's progress. His engine ran for 20 minutes without difficulty and saved the turbojet project for Britain. By January 1940, the Air Ministry ordered a simple aircraft specifically to flight-test Whittle's engine.

In 1941 his turbojet was sent to Boston, Massachusetts, to enable General Electric to build the first American jet engine. In 1942 Whittle came to the United States to help with GE's jet program. He was delighted by the can-do attitude of the Americans. His engine laid the foundation of the American jet engine manufacturing capability: The engine of every jet plane flying today is descended from Whittle's first turbojet of 1937.

In 1948 Whittle retired from the RAF and was knighted. He joined BOAC as a technical adviser before working as an engineering specialist in a Shell Oil subsidiary. In 1976 he moved to Maryland where he accepted the position of NAVAIR research professor at the U.S. Naval Academy from 1977 to 1979. He passed away in 1996.

Unknowingly, Whittle made our planet smaller, impacting the development of our now global economy.


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