Jet age dawned in county

Gloucestershire Echo - - NOSTALGIA -

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

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