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As a young man of twenty in 1928, Whittle conceived a vision of global aviation based on aeroplanes that could fly higher and faster than any of his contemporaries had ever imagined. This made it necessary to devise a new kind of engine, capable of functioning at altitudes far above the weather and untroubled by the thinness of the air. His need was the mother of invention: a gas-turbine unit designed for the purpose of propulsion. He tried to christen it the ‘gyrone’, but it soon became the jet engine or ‘turbo-jet’.
Whittle built his first one in 1936-7, enabled a flight version to take to the air for the first time in 1941 and watched the RAF being equipped with jet-propelled ‘Meteor’ fighters in 1944. Over the rest of his long life (1907-96) he had the satisfaction of seeing civil as well as military aviation completely transformed by jet-engine technology. Having qualified as a pilot in the RAF in a Bristol Bulldog biplane with an open cockpit, he was able in his later years to enjoy the thrill of crossing the Atlantic as a passenger on the Anglo-French supersonic Concorde.
As its title suggests, JET MAN is not just the story of a remarkable technical breakthrough. Whittle came from a working-class background and defied the class-stratified society of England between the wars by virtue of a dazzling career in the RAF. That was the making of him. As the war against Hitler’s Germany approached, he thought the jet fighter offered Britain a realistic prospect of cutting short the conflict or even averting it altogether. His hopes were tragically thwarted on many counts after 1939. This was the breaking of him, leaving him a physical and mental wreck before the war was over.
JET MAN, The Making and Breaking of Frank Whittle, Genius of the Jet Revolution is to be published by Head of Zeus, on a date to be confirmed.