Frank Whittle

A short history of the development of the jet engine

Whilst at Cambridge, Frank Whittle formed a company called Power Jets, with the aim of taking his idea for the development of jet engines further, with the cooperation of two ex RAF officers, R.D. Williams and J.C.B. Tinling.

The RAF agreed to let Frank remain at Cambridge for a further post graduate year, to continue working on his idea.

There were many difficulties, including turbine blade failure, which was overcome by the development of a high nickel alloy by Mond Nickel, called Nimonic 60. Testing of the prototype engines (1937-41) was dominated by problems with combustion. Sir William Hawthorne, who was later to become the Head of the Engineering Department at Cambridge, helped to solve these.

The first of Whittle's test jet engines took to the skies on 15 May 1941, powering an aircraft that had been specifically designed for the purpose: the Gloster E28/39.

This aircraft was conceived and built in only 15 months. Take-off for the test flight, with pilot Gerry Sayer at the controls, took place at RAF Cranwell at 7.45pm, and lasted 17 min, having achieved speeds of over 500mph. The plane used can now be seen at the Science Museum, where it has been on display since 1946.

A second aircraft powered using the same type of engine was demonstrated to Winston Churchill on 17 April, 1943.