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Updated on July 12, 2011

Frank Whittle‘s Jet engine

It was the invention of a person who was able to join the RAF only on his third attempt and whose innovative idea was rejected by the Air Ministry. But it was an idea which changed the face of Aviation industry. Aeronautical engineers had always wondered how can a combustion chamber be designed which would be strong enough to withstand the heat and thrust created for a high speed engine

Sir Frank Whittle, who conceived the idea of a jet engine, was sharp enough to realize that to travel long ranges at high speed; it was easier to do so at high altitudes. But this could not be done using propellers with reciprocating engines. It needed gas turbines to drive the propellers, but it was an idea which the Air ministry rejected. So Frank Whittle personally patented the idea. Franks’ engine had ten combustion chambers rather than one; he was able to divide the combustion without in anyway decreasing the power of the engine. The teething problems were far from over, financing the project was the next major hurdle. In 1935 Power Jets Ltd, was formed but took some time for Air Ministry to approve the project. In 1937 using newly developed alloys which were strong and light, he developed the first laboratory version of the jet engine. Finally in 1941 the prototype was ready and the first trial was made on 15th May 1941. But the real boost came from unexpected quarters. General Electric of the US evinced keen interest in the project and in collaboration with the Power jet engineers XP-59A Air Comet became operational in October 1942. The Jet engine era had formally begun. Very soon the British Gloster Meteor followed suit. After retiring from RAF as Air Commodore, Frank Whittle became a Professor at the US Naval Academy and knighted in 1976.

Whittle’s invention changed the face of aviation. Soon Lockheed and Rolls Royce incorporated Whittle’s innovation, and when Rolls Royce sold their Nene engine to the Soviets, it was used to power the MIG-15 jet fighter. But its impact was not confined only to the aviation industry. Air warfare was no longer what it was like before. As modern warfare depends heavily on precision and speed, it was the jet engine which provided the much needed mobility. Jet fighters have become integral part of every air force and jet aircraft part of the fleet of every airline in the world. For the first time inter-continental travel became a reality which was unthinkable during the early part of the twentieth century. The first commercial passenger airliner was De Havilan Comet, which unfortunately was withdrawn from service owing to a series of accidents. Boeing however succeeded where De Havilan Comet failed; by 1958 Boeing 707 became operational. Sir Frank Whittle was able to achieve the unthinkable. Aviation had come a long a way from its humble beginnings at Kitty Hawk when the Wright brothers radically changed the way man travelled and made his dreams come true.


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