It was an idea given little credibility at the time but pioneering tests on an invention 80 years ago were the beginnings of what brought the world into the jet age.
Bumbling bureaucrats dismissed Sir Frank Whittle’s idea as ‘impractical’, allowing Nazi engineers to peruse plans that could have won Britain the war with ease.
After years of being discredited, the RAF officer eventually tested his crude jet engine at a small factory in Rugby, Warwickshire, on April 12 1937.
Yet it would be years still before the RAF and the world would finally recognise the potential of an idea that allows millions to travel the globe today.
Frank Whittle was once rejected from the RAF, passing the academic test but failing physically, struggling with the physical assessment and measuring just five foot.
But after subjecting himself to a gruelling physical and diet regime, he applied again and was accepted, reporting for duty as an apprentice at RAF Cranwell in 1923.
Academically gifted, he was recommended for a cadetship and began RAF College at Cranwell, where students would write a scientific thesis every six months.
It was here that Whittle, obsessed with the future of aviation, first considered the idea of a jet engine that could fly at high altitudes and unfathomable speeds.
Re the engine itself, no, the RAF realised they had a blinder there. Also that 20s metallurgy wasn’t really going to be good enough. And by the time that was good enough we were in the early stages of preparing for the war (and the Ministry wasn’t that dumb, really, they knew very well that to build jets they needed tungsten the major supply of which was in Portugal – there’s record of a meeting between a Min. bod and Whittle confirming this). At which point, do we expend our resources on an untried new technology? Or build out those Spitfires etc which we know work and we can build in quantity?
For better or worse they took the second decision and it’s not obvious that that was the wrong one. In war good enough in quantity can be better than better but in short supply.
And his cadetship, according to the story, wasn’t quite like that either, as I’ve mentioned around here before. This is how the story goes at least.
Officers were gentlemen, by definition. Therefore only gentlemen could be allowed to become officers of course. An apprentice was someone who worked upon engines ‘n’stuff, an artificer perhaps. Not a gentleman’s occupation, obviously. Pilots were gentlemen, the mechanics were, well, rude mechanics.
The RAF then had a bit of a rethink as they realised that knowing how to pass the port wasn’t really the major qualification they needed in a pilot nor indeed an officer. So they selected 12 artificers to go off through Cranwell to become officers. A test, you see? Whittle was number 13 on this list. And then one of the 12 broke his leg in a cross country competition (look, I’m telling you, this is how the story goes!) meaning that Whittle got shunted up and went to Cranwell.
And that is the story. Proof of this have I none except that one Bill Worstall was one of his fellow artificers sent on the same course as one of the 12. And if that’s how Gramps told the story then that’s good enough for me and it damn well should be good enough for you.