What happens when you mix a 22-year-old, self-taught aeronautical engineer and Royal Air Force pilot, with a slide rule, a solid background in math and an idea? You get the birth of the jet age.
In 1928 Frank Whittle wrote a thesis entitled “Future Developments in Aircraft Design” in which he proved, by calculation, that a gas turbine had the potential to be a mover for air propulsion. This early work laid the foundation for Whittle’s conclusion that the turbojet would greatly outperform the conventional piston engine for high-speed flight at very high altitudes.
Whittle’s 1928 thesis directly led to the birth of the jet age for aircraft propulsion. His work continues to be built on today in organizations throughout Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Whittle, who died in 1996, was recently inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame during its 55th annual enshrinement dinner and ceremony. Whittle’s son Ian accepted his father’s induction at the event, which was held in Fort Worth, Texas, Oct. 28.
Following that honor, the younger Whittle paid a visit to the Air Force Research Laboratory Oct. 31 to learn firsthand the impact his father continues to have on technological innovation in the United States.
Col. Douglas Martin, mobilization assistant to the Air Force Research Laboratory commander, gave Whittle a current overview of AFRL and how the organization is looking into the future with its research.
Then Dr. Dale Carlson, technical advisor for propulsion in the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Engineering Directorate, provided a detailed look at how Whittle’s father continues to impact jet engine innovation.
Carlson began his talk by thanking Whittle for his dad.
“Though aircraft propulsion first began in a field behind this building [Wright Field], your dad took it to the next level,” Carlson said. “He was seminal to the development of not only jet engines but to systems engineering as well. For us he was the Thomas Edison of aircraft gas turbine engines.”
Whittle’s U.S. legacy began in May 1941when Maj. Gen. Henry Arnold, chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps, paid a visit to Great Britain to see a demonstration of Whittle’s engine. At the time, the United States dominated the world in developing aircraft with long-range capability but was several years behind European countries in developing aircraft with performance in mind.
After seeing Whittle’s engine in action, Arnold returned to America and stood up a working group to facilitate bringing the design to the U.S.
“Your father reset the innovation S curve for propulsion,” said Carlson. “His outside-the-box perspectives were invaluable and changed the world forever. He started the jet age for the allies and made due with limited resources. To his credit your dad succeeded despite having war constrained resources in Great Britain.”
Carlson then shared how Whittle’s work remains relevant today.
“The hardest thing to do in the world is propulsion,” explained Carlson. “Your dad was a true genius in that. He was able to take disparate technologies and concepts and put them together into something that worked. From turbo jets, to high pass turbo fans, to variable cycle engines, we’re still building on your dad’s legacy.”
“Your father spawned an unprecedented portfolio in innovative propulsion development. Today airplanes and propulsion systems are the United States’ No. 1 technology export,” said Carlson.
“This is not a sunset industry, however, and technological development continues to evolve,” said Carlson. “Your father’s legacy will live on for generations to come.”
Whittle immigrated to the United States in 1976 to work at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He remained in the U.S until his death.