Whittle to Power Jets - Part 4

by Ian Homer. Posted to category: General

Later life

Our series on the development of the turbojet concludes with the details of Frank Whittle’s life after the end of hostilities in 1945.

If you wish to pick the story up, you can find Part 1 of this story here, which then follows through.


In 1946 Whittle accepted a post as Technical Advisor on Engine Design and Production to Controller of Supplies (Air); was made Commander, the U.S. Legion of Merit; and was awarded the Order of the Bath (CB) in 1947. During May 1948 Whittle received an ex-gratia award of £100,000 from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors in recognition of his work on the jet engine, and two months later he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE), Military Division.

During a lecture tour in the U.S. he again broke down and retired from the RAF on medical grounds on 26 August 1948, leaving with the rank of Air Commodore. He joined BOAC as a technical advisor on aircraft gas turbines and travelled extensively over the next few years, viewing jet engine developments in the United States, Canada, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. He left BOAC in 1952 and spent the next year working on a biography, Jet: The Story of a Pioneer. He was awarded the Royal Society of Arts' Albert Medal that year.

Returning to work in 1953, he accepted a position as a Mechanical Engineering Specialist with Shell, where he developed a new type of self-powered drill driven by a turbine running on the lubricating mud that is pumped into the borehole during drilling.

Normally a well is drilled by attaching rigid sections of pipe together and powering the cutting head by spinning the pipe from the surface, but Whittle's design removed the need for a strong mechanical connection between the drill and the head frame, allowing for much lighter piping to be used. He gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1954 on The Story of Petroleum.

Whittle left Shell in 1957 to work for Bristol Aero Engines who picked up the project in 1961, setting up "Bristol Siddeley Whittle Tools" to further develop the concept. In 1966 Rolls-Royce purchased Bristol Siddeley, but the financial pressures and eventual bankruptcy because of cost overruns of the RB211 project led to the slow wind-down and eventual disappearance of Whittle's "turbo-drill". The concept eventually re-appeared in the west in the late 1980s, imported from Russian designs. (Russia needed the technology because it lacked high strength drill pipe.)

Turbine drilling is best used for drilling hard rocks at high bit RPM's with diamond impregnated bits, and can be used with an angled drive shaft for directional drilling and horizontal drilling. It competes though with rotary steerable systems and is again, somewhat out of favour.

In 1960 he was awarded an honorary degree, doctor techn. honoris causa, at the Norwegian Institute of Technology, later part of Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

In 1967, he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Science) by the University of Bath. That year, he was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame.


In 1987, he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Technology) by Loughborough University.


Later life

Whittle received the Tony Jannus Award in 1969 for his distinguished contributions to commercial aviation.

In 1976, his marriage to Dorothy was dissolved and he married American Hazel S. Hall ("Tommie"). He emigrated to the U.S. and the following year accepted the position of NAVAIR Research Professor at the United States Naval Academy (Annapolis, Maryland).

His research concentrated on the boundary layer before his professorship became part-time from 1978 to 1979. The part-time post enabled him to write a textbook entitled Gas turbine aero-thermodynamics: with special reference to aircraft propulsion, published in 1981.

Having first met Hans von Ohain in 1966, Whittle again met him at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1978 while von Ohain was working there as the Aero Propulsion Laboratory's Chief Scientist. Initially upset because he believed von Ohain's engine had been developed after seeing Whittle's patent, he eventually became convinced that von Ohain's work was, in fact, independent. The two became good friends and often toured the U.S. giving talks together.

In a conversation with Whittle after the war, von Ohain stated that "If you had been given the money you would have been six years ahead of us. If Hitler or Goering had heard that there is a man in England who flies 500 mph in a small experimental plane and that it is coming into development, it is likely that World War II would not have come into being."

In 1986, Whittle was appointed a member of the Order of Merit (Commonwealth).

In 1987, he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Technology) by Loughborough University.

He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, and of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and in 1991 he and von Ohain were awarded the Charles Stark Draper Prize for their work on turbojet engines.


Whittle died of lung cancer on 9 August 1996, at his home in Columbia, Maryland. He was cremated in America and his ashes were flown to England where they were placed in a memorial in a church in Cranwell