Meet Sir Frank Whittle: Father Of The Jet Engine

If you’re boarding a jet-propelled aircraft today, 9 August 2017, then this might be an ideal moment to pause and remember the man who stood at the cradle of turbine-propelled flight: Sir Frank Whittle.

Sir Frank Whittle

The inventor of the jet engine died twenty-one years ago on 9 August 1996. Born in Coventry, England on 1 June 1907, Whittle’s career began as a trainee pilot in the Royal Air Force in the 1920s. Owing to his technical ingenuity, he was admitted to officer training in 1926, which called on him to write a thesis.

His thesis, Future Developments In Aircraft Design, included a design for a motorjet, a piston engine that channelled compressed air into a combustion chamber, which embroidered on an existing design. Whittle demonstrated how the engine could be useful for high-altitude flight.

Birth of the turbojet

Using a piston engine presented a problem, because it was heavy – always an important factor in aviation. Whittle ultimately came up with idea of a turbine that drives a compressor, which saw the birth of the first turbojet, the predecessor of modern gas-turbine engines.

To be honest, engineers in other countries were also working on turbine engines, because aircraft were becoming larger and heavier, which meant piston engines driving the propellers were becoming increasingly complex and less reliable.

air commodore whittle

Whittle with one of his first designs and in his office

A £5 patent

In 1930, Whittle patented his first design which the RAF considered unfeasible for aviation at the time. In the early 1930s, he completed his engineering training at the RAF, graduating with excellent marks that confirmed his technical ingenuity. In 1935, his patent for the turbine engine expired. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the £5 he needed to extend the patent at that time, which meant it became public. He then teamed up with a number of fellow students and colleagues to establish a partnership, which eventually developed into the company Powerjets, which continued to proceeded to further develop the turbojet.

Haviland Comet

The De Havilland Comet, the first jet-propelled passenger aircraft

The Whittle Unit

The pressure increased because German engineers had designed a working jet engine in the mid-1930s. The engine was intended for the propulsion of a Heinkel aircraft. The British Ministry of Aviation decided to get involved in the development of the “Whittle Unit”, as the first engine was called.

The first Whittle Unit was tested in April 1937 at the Bristol Thomson Houston Plant in Rugby. The first aircraft equipped with the engine was a Gloster Meteor, which took to the air in 1941. But competition was fierce, because the Italians had already completed their first jet-propelled flight with a CC2 in 1940, while the jet-propelled Heinkel had already completed its first flight the previous year.

Douglas DC8

The Douglas DC-8

The advent of the jet engine

Development of the jet engine was fraught with problems. Progress only came up to speed after the Second World War. Work on Whittle’s design signalled a decisive change. Whittle’s initial design weighed about a thousand kilos and generated about 631 kg of thrust. Compare that to the Boeing 787’s General Electric Genx 1B engine which weighs more than 6,100 kilos and has 34,000 kg of thrust.

The first commercial aircraft to use jet engines appeared in the 1950s. They included the De Havilland Comet, the Boeing 707, and the Douglas DC-8.

B787 GEnx motor

The B787 GEnx engine

A shining example

These days, jet engines exist in a variety of designs. Most large-scale passenger aircraft use turbofan engines. Smaller regional aircraft such as the Fokker 50 might use turboprops.

We remember Sir Frank Whittle as an ingenious designer with enormous passion and dedication, who played a major role in the development of the jet engine and in aviation as a whole. Thank you, Sir.

Gebouw 410 Motoren shop KLM Schiphol Oost

Building 410: KLM’s engine shop at Schiphol East

Sir Frank Whittle Straat Schiphol

KLM engine test site H11 at Schiphol Oost

Posted by:   Rob Duivis  | 
Join the conversation Show comments

Peter Smith

Very good and informative article.
The first flight of Whittle’s jet engine was made just 10 miles from my home, at Cranwell. The aircraft was actually a Gloster E.28/39. Only two of these were ever built as they were only testbeds for the engine. The Meteor was the first jet fighter to go into full production.
My father, who was in the RAF was a witness to both the very first flight of the Spitfire and the first flight of the E.28/39.



Thanks for this response, and very interesting to read as well that youre father was able to whitness history!





Andres de la Peña Michel

Thank you for this valuable article, planes are my passion, thank you very much for sharing with plane lovers everything you post.

Hans Blom

My all time favorite plane, worked in aft galley and royal class galley, one even had a dining “room/table” seating for 5 right behind the flightdeck. Those were the days my friends:)
Hofmeester Kort Verband 68608 1971-1974



much can be found on the internet about the subject.Two examples




Great tribute to a lost forgotten time in history

Claude Gravel

Wonderful article. Enlightening.

Maybe you would like to do a future article on a gentleman by the name of William E. Boeing?


That is a very good suggestion; will add that too the list!



mehmood hussain




Dear reader,

I fully agree with your comment, sir Frank Whittle was a genious designer and engineer.



Ronald Dijkstra

In recognition of Sir Frank Whittle two aircraft were named after him.
The first, a Douglas DC-8-33 (PH-DCC), was named after him at a ceremony at London Heathrow on 17 May 1960.
The aircraft left the fleet in 1970.
The second one, a Boeing 747-300 (N4548M/PH-BUU), arrived on 1 October 1983.
This was the first KLM 747 with a Stretched Upper Deck (SUD) and left the fleet in 2003.

Jerry Prytulak

It’s good to see a British invention being being rewarded by a different country, especially having a street named after him.
I would be curious to know if Sir Frank Whittle had a street named after him in England?


Yes, there is a road mentioned to sir Frank Whittle:
Sir Frank Whittle Road in Derby is in the East Midlands region of England.

Alan Boyle

Enjoyed this article very much. It is a good series but this semi-technical article is the best so far.


Pure British propaganda.. Whittle did not build the first jet engine. His engine was not the first to be tested or operate under its own power and it was not the first to power an aircraft in pure jet flight. ( and it took 13 years to make it work ) The matter of fact is that Whittle was not first to achieve anything related to the development of turbojet engines….the type of jet engine we use today is not related to Whittle design at all. The axial compressor and turbofan jet engines we use today were actually designed ,developed and flew first in Germany, Whittles 1930 design became obsolete before end of the WW2 it was an evolutionary dead-end. .. In short . Whittle didn’t invent the jet engine…


Tony Johnson

The company referred to above was not Bristol Thomson Houston, but British Thomson Houston. There is a long history of BTH and its associated companies on wikipedia

John R.Alderson

Dear Rob, Many thanks for this concise history of Frank Whittle.
I have a deep interest in industrial archaeology and thru’ my career in engines I have had the privilege to explore some aspects!.
I used to visit a Hawker Siddeley factory (making airfield crash tenders) at Hucclecote near Gloucester and in reception was a tribute to the first test flights of
a military GT powered plane on the adjoining airfield. The pilots write-up was displayed for interest. (maybe this now exists in a nearby museum ?).
Living near to Rugby, I find it interesting that the British Thompson Houston works,
the Brownsover-Hall Hotel, Frank Whittle Museum & nearby the Powerjets Works (Lutterworth), and the Whetstone Works (south Leicester) are all close to Rugby and geographically in a convenient straight line. All were scenes of work for F.W. The Coventry Airport (Bagington) Museum also has a useful Frank Whittle section.
Kind regards,

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