The Race to Develop the Jet Engine

Whittle vs. Van Ohain

Michael Hoolahan – 11th December 2007

Our speaker, an expert on licensing and patents, gave us a most interesting talk on the lives and achievements of these two men with whom he had worked. The talk was divided into two sections. The first dealt with the life of Frank Whittle from the time he applied to join the RAF as an apprentice up to the time of his death, while the second compared the life and achievements of Van Ohain with those of Whittle

The first part of the talk explained how Whittle joined the RAF at Cranfield as an apprentice having been turned down earlier because he was unable to meet the entry requirements for height, how he learnt to fly, and how he eventually went on to Cambridge to read engineering. As early as 1929 Whittle had written a paper suggesting jet propulsion was the way forward for aircraft propulsion systems. The Air ministry rejected this idea, and so his battle to develop the jet engine started.

He applied for a patent in 1930, which was published in 1932, but he soon had to abandon it because he could not afford to pay the annual renewal fees. By 1937 he had secured a limited amount of cash to enable him to develop his ideas and in 1938 the RAF started to take an interest and invested a small amount of extra funding to allow development to proceed further.

By 1939 the idea had become more acceptable and the Gloster Aircraft Company was commissioned to build a suitable plane for the engine. The plane first flew in 1941 and this stimulated further development by Rolls Royce and GE (USA). In 1943 the first Meteor aircraft flew and this eventually went into service in the RAF in 1944, but had a very limited service life in the last year or so of the war.

Frank Whittle had a nervous breakdown in 1944, brought on by the intense pressure and workload he had endured through the previous years, and had to take 6 months sick leave to recover. He was promoted to the rank of Air Commodore in the RAF at this stage of his career, retiring from service life in 1948.

After retiring he worked as a consultant for a number of companies, some in the US, developing turbine driven oil well drills. The UK Government eventually rewarded him for his work in developing the jet engine; he was given a grand total of £100,000 tax-free.

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Van Ohain started out as a physics graduate in Germany, and wrote his thesis on aircraft flight using jet propulsion in 1933, some four years after Whittle, but by all accounts, completely independently. He went on to actually develop his own small-scale jet engine in his garage before being noticed and invited to join Heinkel who would provide him with workshops and financial assistance to develop his engine further. With this assistance Van Hain soon had a working prototype.

The German Government recognised the importance of the work that had been done and commissioned Messerschmitt to build an aircraft to test the newly developed propulsion system. By November 1939 the first German jet propelled aircraft was flying, more than a year in front of the first British plane.

The first twin jet engine German aeroplane flew in 1943, about the same time as the British Meteor, and had it not been for the direct orders of Hitler who wanted this aircraft to be developed as a bomber rather than as a fighter, this aircraft would have been in service by 1944. It was early 1945 before the aircraft could be used successfully against the Allied Forces. Had it been deployed earlier it would have been a serious threat to the advancing armies as they moved towards Germany.

Luckily for the Allies this aircraft was unreliable and extremely difficult to fly, only 300 or so entered operational service. Over 1400 crashed while pilots were in training. If all of these aircraft had become operational the final battles of the war would have been even more protracted.

Van Ohain moved to the south of Germany towards the end of the war and was recruited by the Americans, when they occupied the area, to join the US Airforce Research Centre. He and Frank Whittle met not long after the war and became good friends.