The Jet Engine and Sir Frank Whittle

Sir Frank Whittle logo

The Museum houses a unique collection in the Sir Frank Whittle Jet Heritage Centre, of aircraft, engines and supporting exhibits illustrating the fascinating story of the jet age. The story of Whittle's jet engine is told in pictures, video and artifacts including an animated display.

On the 15th of May, 1941, the first British jet-powered plane took off from RAF Cranwell on a historic 17 minute flight. The jet age had begun! The man who made it possible was Coventry-born engineer, Sir Frank Whittle. From an early age Whittle had been more interested in engines and aircraft than anything else and soon decided to join the RAF. Whittle's family were of modest means and he could not afford to enter the RAF College at Cranwell, so attempted to enter as an apprentice. He failed, being too short and thin to pass the medical. Aged only 15, Whittle was determined that this would not stop him so he exercised until he gained three inches in height and filled out a bit more. He reapplied in 1923 and didn't mention his previous application - and this time he was successful.

In 1926 he was selected for officer and pilot training. During his time at Cranwell he wrote his thesis, entitled Future Developments in Aircraft Design. In this he first mentioned the possiblities of other forms of propulsion for aircraft. Later he came up with the idea of using a gas turbine to produce jet propulsion. He tried to interest the Air Ministry but they felt it was impractical. Despite this Whittle filed a patent application. By 1932, during which time he had been selected to specialise in engineering at RAF Henlow, the patent was granted. Incredibly no-one thought it important enough to keep within the UK, and it was published in many countries, including Germany (research on jet engines began in Germany a year later). Whittle made attempts to drum up interest within private industry but got nowhere.

Whittle working on his engine
Whittle's first experimental jet engine (WU)
painting by Rod Lovesey

Everything changed in 1936, when with the help of two ex-RAF officers and an engineer, with funding from an investment bank (O. T. Falk and Partners), the company of Power Jets Ltd. was formed. Based in the British Thomson Houston works at Rugby, work proceeded slowly - Whittle was still a serving RAF officer and support from the Air Ministry was non-existent. But on the 12th of April, 1937, the first run was made of the Whittle Unit (WU). Onlookers ran for cover amidst a "noise like an air raid siren" but the idea was proved. In the meantime, the clouds of war were gathering on the horizon, but still the Air Ministry was not interested, concentrating on more conventional designs for aircraft and engines.

With the outbreak of war in 1939 the Air Ministry finally became interested and Power Jets was given a contract to produce an engine for use on a real aircraft. Gloster aircraft got the contract to build an aircraft around the engine; the E.28/39 would be that aircraft. While development continued on a useable jet engine, Whittle still had to battle with the authorities - during the Battle of Britain, the National Academy of Science's Committee on Gas Turbines reported:

In its present state, and even considering the improvements possible when adopting the higher temperatures proposed for the immediate future, the gas turbine engine could hardly be considered a feasible application to airplanes mainly because of the difficulty in complying with the stringent weight requirements imposed by aeronautics.

The present internal combustion engine equipment used in airplanes weighs about 1.1 pounds per horsepower, and to approach such a figure with a gas turbine seems beyond the realm of possibility with existing materials.

Whittle would later say "Good thing I was too stupid to know this"! The constant fighting for support took its toll on Britain's efforts to get a jet aircraft in the air, however. The Germans, using a jet engine designed by Von Hain, had the Heinkel 178, a rather ramshackle affair using an axial flow turbojet (unlike Whittle's centrifugal flow design), in 1939 and the Italians just about managed to get the hopelessly underpowered Caproni-Campini N.1 into the air in 1940 (more of a pseudo-jet as it used a piston engine buried in the fuselage to power a turbine).

W2/700 jet aero engine

The E.28/39, sometimes known as the Pioneer or even Squirt, was powered by Whittle's W.1 engine and first flew on 5th May 1941, piloted by test pilot Gerry Sayer. Finally the Air Ministry realised the potential of the new powerplant and plans for a jet fighter were made. This would be the Meteor, also to be built by Glosters. But now Whittle had another battle on his hands - to keep control of his invention.

E.28/39 'Pioneer'
'Pioneer' - limited edition print by
Kenneth C. Aitken AGAvA
available from the museum shop

The aircraft industry was worried about the new invention and desperately wanted to get involved despite their earlier lack of support or interest. Pressure brought to bear on the government resulted in Rover being given the contract to produce the W2 engine for the Meteor. With no experience in gas turbines, Rover quickly fell behind schedule and in 1943 Rolls-Royce were called in to replace them. With much aero engine experience, Rolls-Royce did a better job, but development should have been left to Whittle and Power Jets, who really knew what they were doing. The plans for Whittle's designs had also been handed over to the Americans, who built copies for use in the experimental P-59 Airacomet. Whittle worked with the Americans to help them and was impressed with the level of enthusiasm they showed - and remarked on how things would have been different if he'd had that level of support from British industry. Meanwhile the time and effort wasted meant that the Meteor did not fly until 1943 and was not ready to enter service until 1944.

Whittle and his design
Whittle and his design

The Meteor would never see combat against its German contemporary, the Me-262; partly because Hitler had decreed that the Me-262 should be used as a ground attack aircraft instead of a fighter! 616 Squadron held the honour of being the first British unit to operate a jet powered aircraft, and notched up their first victory in August flying their Meteors against V-1 flying bombs.

Work had also begun in 1942 to develop a supersonic aircraft using an augmented (afterburning) W.2/700 engine of much greater power - the Miles M.52. In late 1944 the government gave away much of the data on the high speed aerodynamics to be used on the M.52 to the Americans who were developing a similar but rocket-powered aircraft, the Bell X-1. After the end of WWII, the new government then cancelled the M.52 project just months before the first prototype was due to fly citing safety and cost reasons.

Whittle W.2/700 engine
The Museum's W.2/700 engine

Work on the augmented W.2/700 engine stopped and Power Jets was nationalised and merged with the gas turbine section of the Royal Aircraft Establishment to form the National Gas Turbine Establishment. Whittle and most of his team resigned in disgust. It was the end for Power Jets (the old Power Jets' site at Whetstone is still in use today; the power generation division of GEC Alsthom is situated there and the old cooling pond is still utilised).

Incredibly, having given away the plans for the jet engine to the Americans along with much of the Miles M.52 research, the new government gave Rolls-Royce jet engines to the Russians as well, resulting in the quick development of the MiG-15 fighter aircraft. The stress of his constant struggles for support had led to a deterioration in Whittle's health and eventually in 1948 he retired on medical grounds. In his post-RAF career Whittle continued to work on gas turbines and then drilling machines, in particular working for Shell, filing several patents related to drilling equipment. He also advised the aviation industry (including BOAC and Bristol Siddeley) and later he moved to the US - his experience there during the war had showed him an atmosphere of openness and easy recognition of a person's achievements and this no doubt influenced his decision. His final work was as a research professor at the US Naval Academy.

Whittle and one of his engines
Whittle in the late 1980s with one of his engines

In 1981 Whittle wrote a book titled Gas turbine aero-thermodynamics, often regarded as the 'bible' in that field. In 1986, Sir Frank was recognised by the establishment in a much more generous and open manner - he received the Order of Merit from the Queen. Sir Frank died on August 1996 at the age of 91. The museum's Sir Frank Whittle Jet Heritage Centre stands as a tribute to Sir Frank, the father of the jet age and the man who made the revolution in passenger air travel possible.

Whittle statue in Coventry
Whittle statue in
Coventry city centre

We have an unrivalled collection of original archive film and other material relating to the development of the jet engine; some of our film has been used in television documentaries including the BBC's Horizon programme. We also have extremely rare colour film of early Meteor operations with 616 squadron.

The local area also pays tribute to Sir Frank's genius, with a statue of the great man standing under the 'Whittle Arches' sculpture outside the Coventry Pool Meadow Bus Station (near the Transport Museum) and a local school being named after him (The Sir Frank Whittle Primary School in Walsgrave). Slightly further afield in Lutterworth a replica of the E.28/39 has been erected on a roundabout on the A246 road and a bust of Sir Frank is on display the War Memorial. Another E.28/39 replica can be found on a roundabout in Farnborough along with one at the Jet Age Museum at Staverton. Various roads and buildings throughout the country also bear his name.


The Museum's CMC Leopard jet is powered by two Williams FJX-1 turbofans, a tiny jet engine producing 700 lbf of thrust for a weight of around 90 lb, based on their earlier F107 cruise missile engine.

CMC Leopard
CMC Leopard

However this isn't the smallest jet engine ever built - far from it. Some engines weigh just a few pounds but still produce more than enough thrust to power small aircraft such as a unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

FJX-1 jet engine
Williams FJX-1 engine in our Leopard

...and Large

Spey jet engine - picture needed
Rolls-Royce Spey engine

The largest engine in the Museum's collection is a Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan that used to power an RAF Phantom fighter. Weighing in at over 4,000 lb and producing over 20,500 lbf with the reheat (afterburner) engaged, a pair of Speys was used by the world's fastest car - ThrustSSC (now on display at the Coventry Transport Museum).

Spey-powered ThrustSSC - world's fastest car

Even the Spey is dwarfed by the world's largest production jet engine, the General Electric GE90-115B which powers Boeing 777 airliners. With a weight of over 19,000 lb this monster has produced up to 127,900 lbf of thrust (setting the world record in the process).

GE90 jet engine
The giant GE90-115B engine
Sadly we don't have one of these - yet!


The oldest jet-powered aircraft in the Museum is our Meteor F.4, EE531, which was first flown in 1946. It is the second oldest Meteor in existence, and the oldest one in the UK (there is also a prototype F.9/40 at Cosford but the prototypes were never named Meteor). Powered by two Rolls-Royce Derwent centrifugal flow turbojets, one of EE531's sister ships set a world speed record of 616 mph on 7th September 1946.

Our Meteor F.4 EE531

However, that isn't our oldest engine - in the Whittle collection we have a W.2B/26 ST4 which was a Rover-designed and built engine based on one of Whittle's designs, first run in March 1942.

Rover W.2B/26
Rover W.2B/26 ST4 engine

We also a very rare example of the W.2/700, the last and most powerful of Whittle's designs, producing 2,485 lbf. This type of engine was trialled in Britain's first jet aircraft, the Gloster E.28/39, and was also used by some early Meteors. Unusually the airflow through the combustion chambers is in the reverse direction, enabling a more compact arrangement.

W.2/700 engine

...and New

Our newest jet-powered exhibit is our Sea Harrier FA.2, ZE694. This particular airframe was first flown in as an FRS.1 in March 1988 but later converted to an FA.2 in 1996. The last Royal Navy Sea Harrier was retired in March 2006. Sea Harriers were powered by the famous Rolls-Royce Pegasus turbofan with vectored thrust, which enabled them to land vertically and take off in very short distances.

Sea Harrier
Sea Harrier FA.2 ZE694

This unique capability meant that the Royal Navy was able to operate a fighter force from much smaller aircraft carriers, which proved their usefulness in the Falklands War of 1982. No Sea Harriers were lost in aerial combat and they shot down several Argentine aircraft.

Take a closer look

Most of the jet engines at the Museum are of course still mounted within their respective airframes so it's not easy to get a closer look at them. This is the starboard engine of our Canberra, for instance, viewable only from on top of the wing with the covering panels removed:

Canberra Avon engine
Avon engine in our Canberra

...but thankfully not all of our jet engines are hidden away! For instance, on display in the Armstrong-Siddeley Gallery is a Sapphire turbojet engine (as used on the delta winged Javelin all-weather fighter, V-force Victor bombers and some early marks of Hunter).

Sapphire engine
Sapphire engine

...and we also have examples of the Westinghouse J30 turbojet (McDonnell-Douglas FH-1 Phantom), Rolls-Royce Avon turbojet (Hawker Hunter, EE Canberra among many others), Rolls-Royce Dart (Armstrong-Whitworth Argosy), Armstrong-Siddeley Viper turbojet (Jet Provost, Strikemaster, Dominie among many others), Bristol-Siddeley Olympus 301 turbojet (Avro Vulcan), Armstrong-Siddeley Mamba turboprop (Arsmtrong-Whitworth Apollo, Handley-Page Marathon), Armstrong-Siddeley Double Mamba turboprop (Fairey Gannet) and Rolls-Royce Gem turboshaft (Lynx).

You can take an even closer look at some of our jet engines, as they have been partially sectioned to enable you to view the inner workings. This is the case with our Rolls-Royce Derwent (Gloster Meteor, Avro 707, Avro Canada C-102, Fokker S.14), Junkers Jumo 004 (Messerschmitt Me-262), de Havilland Goblin (dH Vampire & Swallow, SAAB 21R) and Bristol-Siddeley Orpheus (Folland Gnat, Fiat G.91).

Me-262 Jumo engine
Jumo 004 engine from an Me-262