Jet age dawned in county
TRIBUTES pour in for a giant of aviation so read the headline above an obituary in the Echo this week in 1996 following the death of Sir Frank Whittle.
Whittle will forever be remembered as the inventor of the world’s first successful jet engine.
His ground breaking innovation was put into an airframe created by George Carter, chief designer of the Gloster Aircraft company.
The story of Whittle’s struggle to find official and financial backing for his invention is typical of many talented engineers in Britain.
He patented his jet engine in 1927 and continued to develop theories into jet propulsion and gas turbines while serving as a cadet at the Royal Air Force College in Cranwell.
Whittle took the plans for his revolutionary aero engine to the Air Ministry, where he met with an indifferent response.
According to records the Air Ministry’s director of scientific research was said to be irritated by Whittle’s
demands that an aircraft should be built to test his engine.
Some of the more far sighted ministry men did, however, realise that a form of propulsion capable of taking aeroplanes beyond the limits of propeller driven craft would be of benefit if war breakout, but at this time there was no immediate threat of conflict.
Whittle went off to study engineering at Cambridge. By 1936 he had managed to find a number of private backers who put up the money to found a company, Power Jets Ltd for the purpose of building a prototype gas turbine engine.
The following year the new engine ran successfully. Not just looking at plans on paper anymore, now the men from the Air Ministry didn’t have to use their imagination as they could see and hear Whittle’s innovation in reality.
The fact that Britain had become aware that Germany was rearming apace focussed minds even more and it was agreed that an airframe would be built to take and test the new jet.
Adapting an existing airframe as a test bed for Whittle’s engine was ruled out from the word go. So the Air Ministry issued a specification to a number of major aviation manufacturers in the UK for a plane capable of flying at a minimum of 380 miles per hour.
The design that stood out was the submission from the Gloster Aircraft Company (GAC).
GAC had the pedigree, having produced front line fighters, such as the Grebe, Gamecock, Gauntlet and Gladiator, for the RAF since the 1920s.
Along with the skilled workforce and expertise, the company also had the capacity to take on this challenging role.
The result was the Gloster-whittle E28/ 39. The E stood for experimental, while the specification was the 28th issued by the Air Ministry in 1939.
Two prototypes were ordered from GAC at an agreed price of £18, 500 each.
They were built in Cheltenham at the Regent Garage, a site that today is part of the Regent shopping arcade. Although the official maiden flight of this prototype aircraft took place at Cranwell on May 15, 1941, many aviation historians point out that the new era of jet powered flight dawned in Gloucestershire.
Almost a month before the Cranwell maiden flight, the GAC test pilot Gerry Sayers lifted the E28/39 off the ground at Hucclecote for what witnesses described as three 200 yard hops. The work was top secret, but people living near GAC’S factory in Hucclecote and Brockworth knew from the ear splitting noise and the occasional glimpse of an unusual stubby nosed propeller-less aeroplane that something special was in the air.
From the E28/ 39 the Gloster Meteor was developed, the only jet aeroplane on the Allied side to see service in the Second World War.
It went on to be GAC’S longest running production programme and remained in service with air forces around the world until the mid 1950s.
Frank Whittle received a knighthood in 1948. He worked for various British aircraft corporations until the 1970s, by which time he had become disillusioned with the government’s lack of investment in the industry and so moved to America and died at his home in Washington DC.
» The pictures are taken from “Jet pioneers” by Tim Kershaw, published in 2004 by Sutton Publishing.
Prototype E28-39 at Brockworth Airfield
Photo of an E28-39 signed by Frank Whittle
The Echo’s obituary of Sir Frank Whittle
Sir Frank Whittle
The cockpit of the E28/39