Lofty Ideas, Flighty Invention

Jet Engine Designer Awarded Top Prizeby Engineering Society

November 17, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

If Sir Frank Whittle is as prescient about the environment as he wasabout airplanes, the world may soon discover that global warming is "a lot of nonsense -- a lot of silly nonsense."

Columbia resident Whittle, 84, and Ohio resident Hans von Ohain, 79, are the 1991 winners of the National Academy of Engineering's $375,000 Charles Stark Draper prize for their independent invention of the jet aircraft engine. The academy announced the award, the world's most prestigious and richest engineering prize, last month.

Whittle "has done more than anyone else in this century to shrinkthe world and bring people together," one of his nominators told theacademy.

Winning the Draper award is especially sweet, Whittle says, because 51 years ago the National Academy of Sciences told him his invention "could hardly be applicable to airplanes."

Whittle, who moved to Columbia in November 1979 so he and his wife could be nearhis stepdaughter, maintains an office and residence at Watermark Place. He says he will use the prize money to "help those who've helped me in the past."

"Everyone thinks I'm a lot richer," he says, "butI don't get it until (an awards ceremony) next February. I've already started to give it away, even though I haven't got it."

In the meantime, Whittle has turned his attention to global warming -- or more accurately, to debunking the theory of global warming.

Accordingto the theory, carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels mayirrevocably warm the planet by trapping heat in the atmosphere.

"I wish it were true," Whittle says. "Unfortunately it's not. Scotlandwould be a marvelous place. Canada, Great Britain, and Siberia wouldbe much more habitable."

Whittle, who looks Royal Air Force dapper in his official blazer and central flying school tie, thrusts with humor and parries with seriousness.

Much more carbon dioxide is being removed by shellfish, coral and other marine organisms than is being released into the atmosphere, he says. So much in fact, that in the distant future, the planet may suffer a severe shortage of carbon dioxide, he says.

No one will pay any more attention to an 84-year-old engineer's rejection of global warming theories than British civil scientists did to a junior RAF officer's jet propulsion ideas in 1929, Whittle says.

So he has a series of questions he hopes some science writer will put to leading global warning proponents.

Questions like, "At what rate is carbon dioxide being removed by shellfishand coral? How long before there is none left?"

"You ought to be able to sue these people for the alarm and despondency they're causing," Whittle says. "I'd like to have them in the witness box for some cross-examination."

Although physically slowed by ill health -- heis just now getting back to walking a mile each day after having hadsurgery last winter -- Whittle has lost none of the mental quicknessand curiousity that led him to invent the jet engine.

He credits his "quite exceptional training in the RAF" for stimulating his interest and curiosity in virtually everything. An avid crossword puzzle solver, his particular genius is in seeing patterns and relationships.It is just such genius that enabled him to link gas turbines with jet propulsion.

As a 19-year-old flight cadet at the Royal Air ForceCollege at Cranwell, England, Whittle concluded that given the low density of the atmosphere at very high altitudes, airplanes should be able to fly four times as fast as at sea level.

But they would also need four times the power. Getting a piston engine to provide that power, he says, was hopeless.

Whittle first considered uniting gasturbines with propellers, and then with rockets.

"The penny dropped" in October 1929, while Whittle was serving as an RAF flight instructor at Wittering. Although the Air Ministry rejected his concept asimpractical, Whittle filed a patent application for a jet engine on Jan. 16, 1930.

Two years later his turbojet patent was granted andpublished.

The bench test of his Whittle Unit came April 12, 1937, but the British government was so slow to accept Whittle's ideas that Germany beat Britain into the air with a jet plane by almost two years.

"The RAF was on my side," Whittle says. "It was the civil scientists who were the obstacles. They thought I was just a young pilot officer who couldn't do anything."

The hall leading to Whittle'soffice is a veritable museum marking Whittle's career from the invention of the jet engine until now. Models of Whittle engines and airplanes line the bookcase. On the wall above and across from them is theproclamation of King George VI making him a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and a photograph of Queen Elizabeth congratulating him on the day she presented him the insignia of the Orderof Merit.

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