When Frank Whittle’s seaplane landed at LaGuardia’s Marine Air Terminal in New York City in June 1942, the pioneering jet engine designer found himself in a country that prided itself on its technological prowess. And yet, with World War II in full swing, the American jet engines were embarrassingly far behind the British, who themselves had fallen behind their German foes.
Walking through Pan Am’s new art deco terminal, Whittle passed beneath a recently completed mural depicting three decades of advances in human flight, hoping his own secret mission to the U.S. would lead to the next panel added to that mural. The 35-year-old inventor, who had inadvertently played a role in helping the Nazis get the lead in the critical turbojet technology, had come to the U.S. to turn that situation around.
The earliest efforts to produce a working jet engine make up a complicated tale of hubris, missed opportunities and — especially in the case of Whittle — a dogged determination to prove that his turbojet engine design could transform both air travel and aerial combat. It was the pursuit of that final goal that led the Royal Air Force to send him to the U.S. to team up with engineers at GE.
As it turned out, Whittle’s outsize confidence would be justified to the last detail. The partnership resulted in the first American jet engine and also energized GE’s aviation division. According to company statistics, every two seconds an aircraft powered by its technology takes off somewhere in the world. That translates to more than 2,200 planes aloft at any given moment, each carrying as many as 500 passengers.
Today most of us take long-haul air travel for granted, but the road to get there was by no means easy. Whittle first hit on the idea for a turbocharged jet engine in 1928, and he showed his plans to his superiors at the British Air Ministry in 1929. The engine’s design was wildly innovative, sucking in air that it then compressed, heated and — as the gas rapidly expanded — shot out the back of the engine at great speed, pushing the plane forward. Unfortunately, as with many breakthroughs, Whittle’s innovation struck his superiors as fanciful, a dream that was too good to be true. Acting on the advice of a single consultant, the Air Ministry rejected the design as impractical, leaving Whittle to take out an ordinary patent.
That patent, filed in January 1930, was made public in April 1931. The German Embassy immediately bought a copy and within four months had filed a version of its own at the Berlin patent office, according to records obtained by the inventor’s son, Ian Whittle. “People who wonder how the technology spread so quickly to Germany just have to understand what happens when patents are taken out,” says the younger Whittle. “The British Air Ministry was sufficiently sloppy not to put a cloak of secrecy on it, because they were convinced the turbojet was worthless as an idea.”
The Germans weren’t the only ones to spot what the British had missed. Engineers in both Sweden and Switzerland scooped up Whittle’s idea and soon built the world’s most advanced prototypes. Fortunately for the future Allied war effort, in 1936 a privately funded team in Britain seized on Whittle’s design and began building prototypes of their own.
Whittle’s assistance to GE would prove a critical turning point in the technology’s development, and it was also essential to the American effort to regain a leading role in aircraft engine design. In 1941, General Henry “Hap” Arnold witnessed a short flight of the first experimental British jet powered by Whittle’s W.1 engine. At his request, the British shipped a version of the engine to the U.S., where GE engineers set about replicating it.
As it happened, the American company was in possession of several related technical skills that would prove critical to turning the design into a practical engine. The first was an aptitude for complex metalworking; even more important was GE’s long-standing expertise in building what were known as “turbosuperchargers” for aircraft engines.
Although GE didn’t invent the mechanical device, GE engineer Sanford Moss perfected it and made it safe and practical in boosting piston power in aircraft. Moss was originally seeking to build a better gas turbine. The turbine didn’t pan out, but the engineer successfully used his patented design to fill the cylinders of an aircraft piston engine with more air than it would typically ingest, allowing planes to retain their power at high altitudes. “Moss’ advantage was that he designed his turbosupercharger to divert cooling air to the turbine wheel — the big breakthrough,” says GE Aviation historian Rick Kennedy. “The turbosupercharger ran hot as hell!”
In 1937, as Hitler’s power was growing, GE received a large order from the U.S. Army Air Corps to build turbosuperchargers for Boeing B-17 and Consolidated B-24 bombers, P-38 fighter planes, Republic P-47 Thunderbolts and other planes. The company opened a dedicated supercharger division in Lynn, Massachusetts. It was at Lynn where the Whittle prototype eventually landed. (For his part, Moss landed in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.)
By the time Whittle arrived in 1942, this combination of skills had allowed GE to build a prototype from his design. But it wasn’t easy. “We didn’t have the right tools,” said Joseph Sorota, one of the GE workers involved in the top-secret effort. “Our wrenches didn’t fit the nuts and bolts because they were on the metric system. We had to grind them open a little more to get inside.” The authorities were also watching their every move — an FBI agent made sure to remind Sorota that “if I gave away any secrets, the penalty was death,” he recalled.
After several months of nonstop effort, the engine almost worked, but for a puzzling tendency for the bearings to burn up. With Whittle’s help, workers soon spotted the flaw, and within four months were able to try out the engine, called I-A, by attaching a pair to a Bell P-59 plane.
While the turbojet development ultimately came too late to have a decisive impact on the outcome of the air war, the collaboration began a long tradition of engine technology leadership in the U.S. Today, one the first two General Electric I-A turbojet engines is in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Looking back at the twisting path his father’s idea took from conception to implementation, Ian Whittle sees a lesson that applies to modern technology: Don’t dismiss potential breakthroughs with haughty pessimism. “It was bad advice from a single consultant that convinced the Air Ministry it was a waste of time,” Whittle says.
He also recalls that while his father admired the technical skills of the Americans, he was even more impressed with their enthusiasm for making his idea a practical reality. As he puts it with a chuckle: “I believe this gung-ho attitude to the challenge created a mindset with my father that encouraged him to be more cooperative with GE than was strictly necessary.”