The History of the Jet Engine

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq early in the morning of Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. Public Domain

Dr. Hans von Ohain and Sir Frank Whittle are both recognized as being the co-inventors of the jet engine. However, each worked separately and knew nothing of the other's work. Von Ohain is considered the designer of the first operational turbojet engine while Whittle was the first to register a patent for the turbojet engine in 1930. Though von Ohain was granted a patent for his turbojet engine in 1936, it was von Ohain's jet that was the first to fly in 1939.

It was't until 1941 that Whittle's jet first flew.

Sir Whittle was an English aviation engineer and pilot. The son of a mechanic, Whittle joined the Royal Air Force as an apprentice. He joined a fighter squadron in 1928 and became a test pilot in 1931. The young officer was only 22 when he first thought to use a gas turbine engine to power an airplane. While often regarded as the father of modern jet propulsion systems, Whittle tried unsuccessfully to obtain official support for study and development of his ideas. He had to pursue his research on his own initiative and received his first patent on turbojet propulsion in January 1930.

With private financial support, he began construction of his first engine in 1935. This engine, which had a single-stage centrifugal compressor coupled to a single-stage turbine, was successfully bench tested in April 1937. It was only a laboratory test rig that was never intended for use in an aircraft, but it did demonstrate the feasibility of the turbojet concept.

The modern turbojet engine used today in many British and American aircraft is based on the prototype that Whittle invented.

Whittle was associated with the firm Power Jets Ltd., which received a contract for a Whittle engine known as the W1 on July 7, 1939. This engine was intended to power a small experimental aircraft.

In February of 1940, the Gloster Aircraft Company was chosen to develop the aircraft to be powered by the W1 engine known as the Pioneer. The historic first flight of the Pioneer took place on May 15, 1941, with Flight Lieutenant P. E. G. Sayer as pilot.

  • Born: June 1, 1907, Coventry, Warwickshire, England
  • Died: Aug. 8, 1996, Columbia, Md., U.S.

Doctor von Ohain was a German airplane designer who invented an operational jet engine. Von Ohain obtained his doctorate in Physics at the University of Göttingen in Germany and then became the junior assistant to Hugo Von Pohl, director of the Physical Institute at the University. German aircraft builder Ernst Heinkel asked the university for assistance in new airplane propulsion designs and Pohl recommended his star pupil. At the time, von Ohain was investigating a new type of aircraft engine that did not require a propeller. Only twenty-two years old when he first conceived the idea of a continuous cycle combustion engine in 1933, von Ohain patented a jet propulsion engine design in 1934 that was similar in concept to that of Sir Whittle but different in internal arrangement.

Von Ohain joined Ernst Heinkel in 1936 and continued with the development of his jet propulsion concepts.

He successfully bench tested of one of his engines in September 1937 and a small aircraft was designed and constructed by Ernst Heinkel to serve as a test bed for a new type of propulsion system known as the Heinkel He178. The Heinkel He178 flew for the first time on August 27, 1939. The pilot on this historic first flight of a jet-powered airplane was Flight Captain Erich Warsitz.

Von Ohain developed a second improved jet engine know as the He S.8A, which was first flown on April 2, 1941.

  • Born: Dec. 14, 1911 , Dessau, Germany
  • Died: March 13, 1998, Melbourne, Fla., U.S.
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Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Jet Engine." ThoughtCo, May. 24, 2017, Bellis, Mary. (2017, May 24). The History of the Jet Engine. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Jet Engine." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 16, 2018).