He changed flight patterns Sir Frank Whittle: Co-inventor of jet engine fought gravity and his government.

August 14, 1996

SIR FRANK WHITTLE is not a name that rings with the familiarity of Wilbur and Orville Wright, but only the pioneering brothers and a German rival can equal his contributions to air travel as we know it.

Mr. Whittle, a Britain-born engineer who died Thursday at age 89, shares credit with German Hans J.P von Ohain for inventing the jet engine at a time when the British government doubted his mechanism would fly and fought his efforts to develop it.

He never got filthy rich from an invention that is central to a multibillion dollar industry -- the British government did belatedly award him 100,000 pounds (about $400,000 in those days) -- but history has proved his worth. Encyclopedias and science texts that name him as a father of the jet engine have brought him the kind of immortality money never could.

Mr. Whittle, who spent his last 17 years in Columbia, began his research into jet engines at a young age. The son of an engineer and "great tinkerer," he first laid out the theory behind jet propulsion at age 21 while a senior at the Royal Air Force College. He received a patent in 1932, and with the help of friends ran the first jet engine on the ground in 1937.

But when the first jet engine took flight in August 1939 at the outset of World War II, it wasn't the one he built. Rather, it was the invention of Mr. von Ohain, who worked separately in Germany with more support. Mr. Whittle's jet planes flew two years later, beginning in May 1941. Both versions of the jet engine saw some action in the war, Britain's Gloster Meteors matched against Germany's Messerschmitt Me-262's.

After Mr. Whittle moved to the United States in 1976, he became a research professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Maido Saarlas, a Naval Academy aerospace engineering professor, says Mr. Whittle's name deserves to be placed alongside Einstein's and Newton's "because he was very much instrumental in revolutionizing aviation." His name never may become a household word, but his invention continues to affect millions of people by making air travel faster and more convenient.

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