For most of the day on May 15, 1941, the clouds were thick over central England. But the weather began to clear in the late afternoon, sending a young inventor named Frank Whittle racing to an airfield in Cranwell. There, he took up position at the end of the runway to watch as a strange, snub-nosed airplane dubbed the Gloster E.28/39 gently lifted off the ground. What made the plane so unusual was what it didn't have: a propeller. Instead, it was powered by the hot gases spewing from its tailpipe. After the plane had flown for 17 minutes, reaching a top speed of 370 miles per hour, a colleague slapped Whittle on the back. "Frank, it flies," he said. Replied Whittle: "Well, that's what it was bloody well designed to do, wasn't it?" The era of jet travel was at hand.When Whittle began tinkering with jet power in the late 1920s, the nascent aviation industry was still focused on squeezing more performance out of propeller-driven planes. Scientists scoffed at jets, believing they couldn't generate enough thrust to fly. The machinery required to produce a steady stream of air was too heavy or inefficient to keep the plane aloft for long. But through design smarts and sheer willpower, Whittle came up with a lightweight engine that sent a blast of hot gas out the back, pushing the plane forward.
A determination to overcome long odds was instilled in Whittle at an early age. Born in Coventry, England, in 1907 to working-class parents, he helped out at his father's machine shop as a boy. Unable to afford private school, he applied to a Royal Air Force program for mechanics. Standing just 5 feet tall and with a small chest, he flunked the physical exam. So Whittle put himself through a rigorous training regime and reapplied. This time he got in -- and later trained as a pilot.
Something of a daredevil in the cockpit, Whittle became convinced there was a faster way to fly. In 1930 he patented the first jet-engine design; six years later he formed a company with two former RAF pilots. Perennially strapped for cash, they begged the skeptical British Air Ministry for funding. At one point, Whittle even let his patent lapse for lack of a $9 renewal fee. It wasn't until Nazi bombers terrorized England that contracts really started flowing. Whittle and his partners hunkered down over their designs, sleeping in the office to guard them against spies, searching for a fuel burner that could produce the required heat and turbine blades that could withstand those temperatures. "He came up with many of the innovations that we still use today," says Brian Rowe, a retired CEO of General Electric Co.'s (GE
) engine unit.
The breakthrough came not a minute too soon. A German, Hans von Ohain, was developing a similar engine, and actually flew a jet plane earlier, in 1939. Late in the war, Germany used jets against Allied bombers, and a British jet based on Whittle's design shot down German V-1 rockets.
Whittle proved a better inventor than businessman. He argued that the jet industry should be nationalized, but only his company was. Whittle got $85,000 for his shares, while competitors such as Rolls-Royce became rich as commercial aviation boomed. The little boy from Coventry ultimately got his due, however. He was knighted by King George VI, and today a memorial lies in Westminster Abbey -- an inspiration to young dreamers everywhere. By Christopher Palmeri