Marking 90 years since the jet engine was invented at RAF Wittering by Sir Frank Whittle
The Harrier jet plane that stands outside RAF Wittering today guards a well-kept secret.
The jet engine was invented 90 years ago on this base, almost to the day, by a pilot officer of 22 who had recently gone there to become a flying instructor. His name was Frank Whittle.
Decades later, I befriended Whittle through my job as a television producer when I filmed him telling his incredible story. By then, he was Sir Frank.
As our camera rolled, he revealed how his time at Wittering would lead to the jet age – but only after years of struggle that wrecked his health.
His moving account of how he realised jet aviation forms the core of my TV documentary Whittle – The Jet Pioneer, which I have just re-issued on DVD to mark the 90th anniversary of his Wittering invention.
In 1929 aircraft were slow, piston-engined propeller machines that shook the pilot terribly. Whittle knew aviation could be better and at Wittering became obsessed with making it so.
He saw propeller planes were fast reaching their limits.Maybe a jet could fly an aircraft much faster. But what could create that jet?
At Wittering, he told me "the penny dropped. I thought, throw away that propeller and substitute a gas turbine for the piston engine".
This turbine would turn a compressor that sucks in air, which is then ignited to produce a hot gas. This escapes out of the back of the engine, pushing the aircraft forward – at faster speeds.
What, I asked Sir Frank, had inspired this brainwave ? He shrugged. "The idea just came out of the blue. Perhaps having a bath!"
Sadly it took Whittle until 1941 to get a jet plane flying, because the experts said his idea would never work. Today, we make four billion passenger journeys annually in jets. Sir Frank didn't just change the face of the Earth. He enabled us to see what it looked like.
At RAF Wittering now, there's nothing to suggest Whittle made history there in 1929 – but the jet fighter outside is the best memorial he could have.
Whittle – The Jet Pioneer is available on DVD by clicking here or call 07435 973397. Price £15.99 plus £1.99 postage.