Sir Frank Whittle: the test pilot who revolutionised aviation

·6-min read
Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine - Geoff Pugh
Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine - Geoff Pugh

News of the death of Chuck Yeager last week, aged 97, prompted tributes across the aerospace world to ‘the man who broke the sound barrier’.

As a young US Air Force test pilot in October 1947, Yeager raced across the sky over California’s Mojave desert in a bullet-shaped experimental plane called the Bell X-1. It marked the start of the celebrated era in American military aviation that was chronicled in such dizzying style by Tom Wolfe in his 1979 book The Right Stuff. (Yeager, wrote Wolfe, was ‘the most righteous’ of all who possessed said stuff.)

In most of its essentials, though, the shape of the Bell X-1 was fashioned by British engineers in the home counties. They called it the M.52 and began work on it in 1944 at the main plant of a small manufacturer called Miles Aircraft in Berkshire. It was to be powered by two W.2/700 jet engines – the latest in a succession of highly innovative designs by the man whose pioneering work on jet flight transformed the world of civil as well as military aviation: Frank Whittle.

Whittle himself had once been a brave test pilot. As an RAF officer in 1931 he had been seconded briefly to the Royal Navy, to fly planes catapulted off ships. (One of his roles involved making ‘pancake’ landings on the sea, to test the efficiency of newly invented flotation bags. Whittle made several landings, never mentioning to anyone that he couldn’t swim.)

He flew at little more than 100mph in those days, in biplanes with wire-braced wings and fabric-covered fuselages. Many great engineers contributed to the astonishing leap in aircraft technology that led from those biplanes to supersonic flight less than 20 years later.

Sir Frank and the team at Brownsover Hall, Rugby, where design work on the jet engine was carried out
Sir Frank and the team at Brownsover Hall, Rugby, where design work on the jet engine was carried out

No other single individual, though, came anywhere close to rivalling the contribution made by Whittle with his development of the jet engine. Defying sceptics on all sides, he fired the first one in 1937. Working with just a tiny band of assistants on a shoestring budget, he produced a flight-worthy version by 1939. During the course of the Second World War, he helped to lay the foundations of a jet engine industry in Britain that led directly to Rolls-Royce becoming one of the pillars of post-war aviation from the day the war ended.

Yet by 1947, Whittle was in many ways a broken man. When reports began seeping into the aviation press at the end of that year that an American pilot had flown faster than the speed of sound, Whittle was in a psychiatric clinic in London receiving electro-convulsive therapy for nervous disorders that had kept him in hospital for several months.

Captain Chuck Yeager went on to a distinguished career, rising to become an US Air Force general and a household name. Whittle was invalided out of the RAF in February 1948 at the age of 40. He collected a knighthood and a generous pay-off from the state for his achievements.

But the resulting publicity soon faded, and he became a recluse for most of the next quarter century. What had wrecked Whittle’s state of mind was the calamitous handling of his jet engine by the British government between early 1940 and the end of 1942. For three years, he had suffered the excruciating frustration of knowing that he had opened the way to the use of jet planes that might have changed the course of the war, if only sufficient resources had been thrown into the production process. Instead the manufacture of his engine had been handed over to a car maker, which never succeeded in producing a single flight-worthy engine.

Only in 1943 was the project at last transferred to Rolls-Royce – too late for the subsequent launch of jet planes to have any impact on the war. Nothing better exemplified the way in which Whittle’s genius was so shamefully under-appreciated than the cavalier treatment of his last engine design, the W.2/700. Adapted for supersonic flight in the M.52, it incorporated – like all his other designs – features that were far ahead of their time.

Sir Frank with his wife Dorothy
Sir Frank with his wife Dorothy

With an understanding of both engine and aircraft design that was unique among his peers, Whittle was hugely excited by Miles Aircraft’s work on a plane that was already making good progress on a government contract by the autumn of 1944. At Whitehall’s behest, representatives of the US Army Air Force and executives from the Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York were invited to visit the Miles factory in Berkshire that autumn.

The Allied governments had struck a deal. All progress made towards supersonic flight on either side of the Atlantic was to be fully shared between their two aerospace industries. So full disclosure was the order of the day. The American visitors left with a complete set of fuselage drawings and all the test results accumulated by Miles Aircraft to that date. Their hosts knew the US supersonic programme was still at a rudimentary stage, but nonetheless looked forward to a reciprocal trip that had been arranged with Bell Aircraft. A week later, Ministry officials telephoned the Miles team to say the trip had been cancelled – the Pentagon had blocked it on security grounds. The US programme was formally launched six months later.

The Americans lacked the research base to develop a jet engine remotely comparable with Whittle’s W.2/700, and the Bell X-1 for Yeager’s flight in 1947 was powered by a rocket. The plane itself, though, bore more than a passing resemblance to the M.52. It had the same bullet fuselage and straight, thin wings. As later observed by the British test pilot lined up for the M.52’s launch, Eric Brown, there was something about the Bell X-1 that was “all very déjà vu to my critical eye.”

Brown never had the chance to fly the M.52. It was unceremoniously scrapped by Attlee’s Labour government in February 1946. That cancellation, along with the aborting of another of Whittle’s designs that might have led to turbo-fan engines long before they actually appeared in the 1960s, effectively marked the end of Whittle’s career in aviation.

His legacy, of course, only went on, becoming ever more apparent. Rocket planes flown by those like Yeager sped men on their way to landing on the moon. Jet planes flown by several thousand airlines would in time change the face of travel and shrink the earth.

Duncan Campbell-Smith’s Jet Man: The Making and Breaking of Frank Whittle, Genius of the Jet Revolution is published by Head of Zeus. To order your copy, call 0844 851 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

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