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          A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

  Rolls-Royce Avon

A propeller screws itself, as it were, through the air, a jet-engine on the other hand, drives itself forward using the thrust caused by the enormous amount of air and combustion gases which are emitted. This is also how a rocket works, it however carries it's complete stock of oxygen and fuel-gas. The jet-engine only needs fuel, it draws in the air, thus also the necessary oxygen, from the atmosphere.

This is how a gas turbine works ...

The ideas of building one of these, compared with the propellor engine, much more elegant aircraft engines, originate from the beginning of the last century. The first drawings and patents go back to Frank Whittle, a very good but also reckless pilot who, despite having a modest background, made it into the air-force. Parallel to this, indeed with less delays, Hans Pabst von Ohain, a doctor of physics, together with his master-mechanic, Max Hahn, developed such an engine to the point of being able to have it mass produced.

Whittle's road to the first successful flight was longer, because the army declined to subsidize his first test projects. His talents were subject to doubt so he first finished his studies at Cambridge. In Germany, Von Ohain who was also faced with difficulties, did however find a sponsor, Ernst Heinkel, who was in fact, very interested in getting the job done quickly. Heinkel was an aviation pioneer almost from the beginning and was later deeply involved in the German re-armament. He became the military economic leader and also the supervisor of the big state aircraft manufacturing works.

Although Whittle had been dealing with the new engines for longer and had been attempting to get the patents since 1930, both inventors only started with the realisation in 1935. We are informed by Wikipedia, that von Ohain's first engine was hydrogen powered, for the purpose of showing quick results. Later they would change to petrol- and then to Diesel-fuel, which is still used today in a slightly altered form as Kerosene for jet-engines. The connection to Wernher von Braun's rocket development is also interesting. In the middle of 1939, the world's first jet-powered aircraft, the He 178, finally flew. It was 7,5 m long, weighed 2 tons ready for flight and was capable of a speed of 700 km/h, the pilot was Erich Warsitz.

A copy of the He 178 in the Phantechnikum in Wismar

The fact that just 5 days later the Second World War began, indicates the military focus on the project. It would however, take another three years before it went into action, e.g., in the Messerschmidt 262, in the end however, neither the jet-engine nor the rocket propulsion (V1, V2) would have a decisive influence on the course of the war. As far as the technology was concerned, it seemed that it wasn't that simple, to achieve an even flammability in the airflow, which was hardly comparable to that occuring in the combustion engine. After all, it still took another six years to develop and test a new engine.

The development of jet-engines by BMW

After finishing his studies, Frank Whittle founded the Power Jets Company together with two former Royal Air Force officers, with whose assistance, and despite several unsuccessful test-runs, he managed to persuade the aviation-ministry to involve themselves in the developing. Since in 1938 the first test-runs showed the promise of success, it would still take until the middle of 1941, before the first English jet-airplane would take off, with Whittle himself as the pilot. The later achieved performance data were similar to that of the He 178, they were however, obtained using kerosene. Apparently however, the support given by Great Britain was not enough for Frank Whittle because he then went over to General Electric in the USA. Indeed, also there, probably for reasons of secrecy, the further development did not take place as quickly as was anticipated.

Thus, inside of one year, Whittle found himself back in Great Britain, in the service of the RAF, this time however, with Rolls-Royce. There, the jet-engine was not considered only for military use but for a long time after the war, with the Avon-engine (see picture), was a determining factor on the road to civil aviation. After the 'Welland', the 'Derwent' and the 'Nene' which all used the radial-compressor, in 1945 they finally decided on the axial-compressor originally favoured by Whittle. Up to 1974, 11.000 examples of this Avon-engine would be built. It was also called the Merlin of the jet-age. With this engine, Rolls-Royce could grow, in 1966 they took over their home competitors, Bristol Siddely and with a work-force of 80.000, became the manufacturer with the largest range of aircraft engines in the world. In 1970, the work-force grew even further, to 90.000.

Jet-engines have long produced the performance of almost 3000 motor cars, they work well at both temperatures of -60C at a height of 10.000 meters, as well as in hot tropical regions. Neither extreme rainfall nor a foreign body or a broken turbine-vane may cause the engine to do anything more dramatic than carry out an orderly cut-off. Whereas in the early years, the jet-engines powered aircraft like, e.g., the Concorde (with a speed of Mach 1) to maximum performance, nowadays, the focus is on consumption and environmental protection.

So, what has become of Frank Whittle? He left the RAF in 1948 with the rank of Air-Commodore, he then joined BOAC as a technical advisor and in 1976, he accepted a professorship at the US Naval Academy. Relatively early he developed a friendly relationship to von Ohain. He, in turn, since the end of World War Two, was occupied in the US Air Force, in the end, as the chief scientist at the Air Force Aero Propulsion Laboratory. Whittle died at the age of 89, von Ohain at 87. 04/13               Top of page               Index
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Translator: Don Leslie - Email:

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