Jet Man: the making and breaking of Frank Whittle, genius of the jet revolution

This is a fine, deeply researched book, with Frank Whittle’s story beginning with a lad of humble origin who, aged just 16, entered the RAF as an apprentice fitter, already with strong views about the viability of gas-turbine aero engines firmly entrenched in his scientific and profoundly mathematical mind.

Once commissioned and a highly respected pilot, his ideas were generally supported by his military superiors, but ignored by the established aero-engine manufacturers (with their vested interests) and rejected virtually out of hand by the mandarins at the Air Ministry from late 1929 onwards.

Whittle’s brilliance and potential were recognised by his commanding officers and he was awarded a placement at Cambridge University, where he became involved in the University Air Squadron. It was only near the end of his time in academia that his thoughts turned again to his gas-turbine engine.

Yet his approaches to the Air Ministry in October 1935 were again rebuffed, with W L Tweedie of the Directorate of Scientific Research dimissing the invention as ‘unlikely to prove of any practical value to the Royal Air Force’.

This attitude was to prevail until the war broke out in the summer of 1939, though there was to be much interplay between Whittle and his Power Jets company and potential supporters before then. The 1936 Cambridge University Air Squadron black-tie dinner, for instance, led to the belated establishment of contacts with powerful figures in industry, the civil service, and the military.

Many problems associated with the new technology naturally cropped up, though Whittle himself often tackled these problems. Then, on 12 April 1937, the engine (model WU1) was run for the first time, a truly great achievement but still well behind Germany.

The book continues at great length and in great technical detail, drawing on Whittle’s diaries and those of others concerned, to recount the story of the engine development, often under severe (and frequently illogical) opposition. But triumph for Whittle and his dedicated team came on 15 May 1941, when Gloster’s chief test pilot ‘Gerry’ Sawyer lifted the E.28/39 trial jet off the runway at Cranwell to achieve Britain’s first jet-powered flight.

Research and development continued, fortunately with the support of Henry Tizard – the leading government scientific advisor – and problems, such as those with the fuel and combustion systems, were overcome.

Tizard proved to be the vital link with the established aircraft-manufacturing industry. The Gloster Aircraft company worked with Whittle’s team to produce the twin-engined Meteor aircraft, which, after many tests, first flew in March 1943, powered by Rolls-Royce engines of Whittle and Power Jets’ design.

The Meteor entered RAF service too late to have a major influence on the war’s outcome, but was especially suited to downing V-1 (‘Doodlebug’) rockets.

If the ‘powers that be’ in the late 1920s and early 1930s had listened to Whittle, the Battle of Britain would have been much more easily won and the bombing of British cities much less intense.

Jet Man is a little heavy going in places for the layman, but the book does great credit to a true aviation pioneer.

Review by Colin Pomeroy.
Jet Man: the making and breaking of Frank Whittle, genius of the jet revolution, Duncan Campbell-Smith, Head of Zeus, £30 (hbk), ISBN 978-1788544696.