It has been said that history is full of ironies and the history or jet aircraft is no exception. In fact, the two men who are considered the fathers of the jet engine were both working on similar designs at the same time. In what can only be considered a great irony, each began his work for similar reasons, during the same time in history, yet entirely unknown to the other.
From a wider perspective jet engines can be traced back to the invention of the Aeolipile around approximately 150 BC. The invention utilized steam power that was directed via twin outlets that forces a sphere to spin on its axis. However, the invention was never intended to be used for supplying mechanical power, and the potential practical applications of this invention were not recognized at that time. Jet propulsion only took flight literally with the invention of gunpowder that was used in fireworks rockets by the Chinese in the 13th century. What began as harmless fun eventually morphed into formidable and destructive weaponry. Jet technology at that stage halted to progress and there the technology hibernated for a very long time until the late 19th century.
Born on the 1st of June 1907, in Warwickshire, Coventry, England, the son of a mechanic Sir Frank Whittle was an English aviation engineer and pilot. He was 22 years old when he conceived the idea of building a gas driven turbine engine to fly a plane. Enrolling into the British Royal Air Force as an apprentice, he quickly climbed up the avionics ladder from being a fighter squadron pilot in 1928 to a test pilot in 1931. He is regarded as the father of modern jet propulsion engines; however, during the time when he conceived his ideas of jet propulsion systems Frank Whittle tried hard to obtain official support for study and development of his ideas, but met with failure to gain support his theories. Unrelentingly he continued the research on his own initiative and accord and finally received his first patent on turbojet propulsion in January 1930. After obtaining financial aid from the private sectors he finally created a complete blue print of his turbo engine. Construction of his engine began in 1935. The first engine that he built had a single-stage centrifugal compressor coupled to a single-stage turbine, which was successfully bench tested in April 1937 and performed well above expectations.
During that time Whittle was associated to the firm of Power Jets Ltd., which obtained a contract to build a Whittle engine, which was named W1, on July 7, 1939. The engine was specifically built to power an experimental aircraft that was predesigned. The following year in February 1940, a company called Gloster Aircraft was selected to design an aircraft specifically to be powered by the W1 engine. The combination of the two factors resulted in the development of the first turbo jet aircraft the Pioneer. Piloted by Flight Lieutenant P. E. G. Sayer the historic first flight of the Pioneer took place on May 15, 1941 and it was deemed a complete success.
Meanwhile, about the same time in Germany, German aircraft builder, Ernst Heinkel asked a university for assistance in new airplane propulsion designs and was recommended to their most prominent pupil Hans Von Ohain, who at the time was 22 years old as well. Dr. Hans Von Ohain, was contemplating an aircraft engine that did not require a propeller. Eventually he conceived the idea of a continuous cycle combustion engine in 1933. Hans Von Ohain also patented a jet propulsion engine design system that was very similar in concept to that designed by Sir Frank Whittle but had a completely different internal arrangement and mechanics, in 1934. Eventually Hans Von Ohain and Ernst Heinkel formed a pact in 1936 and proceeded to develop his concepts of jet propulsion engines. The first successful bench test using his engines was accomplished in September 1937. Ernst Heinkel had designed and built a ‘mini’ aircraft to act as a test piece for the new prototype jet propulsion engine system. The plane that was named the Heinkel He178 made her maiden flight on August 27, 1939. The mini jet aircraft was piloted by Flight Captain Erich Warsitz.
Although both Whittle and Hans are recognized as the inventors of the modern jet propulsion engines just before the second world war, where during which time they were serving on opposite sides, neither of them knew of the others work, invention, or intention, until after the patents. Indeed, history is strange…even jet aircraft history.