The Great Jet Engine Race . . . And How We Lost

Jan. 1, 1982
The year is 1935. Three men—one in England, one in Germany, and one in the United States—have reached the same conclusion: The world is ready for a new type of airplane engine.

“Concurrence,” an idea that occurs simultaneously to different people, is not unusual in science. In this case, dissatisfaction with the reciprocating engine as an aircraft powerplant is widely recognized. All that is needed is s someone to bridge the creative gap between the problem—the limitations of the reciprocating engine-and the solution, the development of an effective gas turbine—a jet engine.

The Englishman is an RAF officer in his mid-twenties. In January 1930, he had applied for his first patent, an ordinary reciprocating engine driving a compressor to produce a jet. Although his patent was similar to one issued years earlier to a Frenchman, the RAF is impressed and sends the young man to Cambridge University for two years. His name is Frank Whittle.

The German is a student of applied physics and mathematics at the University of Göttingen. His first patent is granted in 1934. The German is Pabst yon Ohain, also in his mid-twenties.

The American has a head start. In his mid-thirties, he is already chief of structural research at the Douglas Aircraft Co. in Santa Monica, Calif. He has helped build the world’s first successful all-metal dirigible. His name is Vladimir Pavlecka, and he has been working on a gas-turbine engine since 1933.

First Steps

In England, Frank Whittle enlists the aid of two former RAF officers who arrange a meeting with two investment bankers, Sir Maurice Bonham-Carter and Lancelot Law Whyte.

In Germany, graduate student Pabst Yon Ohain takes his problem to a professor at the University of Göttingen, R. W. Pohl. Pohl is a personal friend of airplane builder Ernst Heinkel.

In the US, Vladimir Pavlecka turns to Douglas, for whom he has already helped develop the concept of light metal airplane structures.

Whittle’s RAF friends show his designs to M. L. Bramson, a widely respected consulting engineer, who arranges a meeting with Bonham-Carter and Whyte. The two are interested in projects considered too speculative for conservative investment firms.

Lancelot Whyte meets the twenty-eight-year-old Whittle on September 11, 1935.

“The impression he made was overwhelming,” Whyte recalls. I have never been so quickly convinced, or so happy to find one’s highest standards met. . . . This was genius, not talent.

“Whittle expressed his idea with superb conciseness: ‘Reciprocating engines are exhausted. They have hundreds of parts jerking to and fro, and they cannot be made more powerful without becoming too complicated. The engine of the future must produce 2,000 hp with one moving part: a spinning turbine and compressor.'”

In Germany, even though his airframe company has never built an aircraft engine, Heinkel hires the young von Ohain.

In the US, Douglas sends Pavlecka’s proposal to engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, who forwards it to MIT. The MIT and Pratt & Whitney engineers agree: Even if the engine worked, which it won’t, there would be nothing useful for it to do. They are unanimous in their disinterest of the jet engine.

In March 1936, Power Jets Ltd. is formally incorporated. Whittle, still an RAF officer, is chief engineer. The Air Ministry, after examining Whittle’s proposal, determines that his engine will never have military value but allows him to spend six hours a week working for the new company.

In October, a Power Jets bid for an Air Ministry research grant is turned down and work continues with private funds. Though Whittle would prefer to build and test each engine component separately, suitable test equipment does not exist and it would be too expensive and tile-consuming to build. They decide to build the entire engine all at once.

Von Ohain begins work at Ernst Heinkel Flugzeugwerke in February 1936. Heinkel’s engineers have doubts but decide to build a simple demonstration engine out of sheet metal. At Douglas, Pavlecka has not been idle. In 1936 he designs the company’s first pressurized fuselage for the DC-4; develops the first tricycle landing gear ever used on a large ,lane; invents a self-sealing fuel tank; and switches Douglas from extruded sections to rolled sheet metal sections, thus making Douglas the first company to adopt today’s industry standard.

In the face of almost universal skepticism about the jet engine, But Pavlecka is not discouraged: “Never,” he says. “I knew the history of the gas turbine from Armengaud in France to Lysholm in Switzerland. Dr. Adolph Meyer, the chief engineer at Brown-Boveri had been a guest in my home, though he didn’t believe the gas turbine could ever be made light enough to fly. I knew the history. The experts at MIT and Pratt & Whitney didn’t and this meant they would miss out on the beginning of this new industry. I knew I was right.”

Early Advances

In March 1937, the world’s first jet engine roars into life—in Germany. It has taken von Ohain and three assistants eleven months and b $20,000. Their simple demonstration engine develops 550 pounds of thrust, more than enough to silence doubters.

Work begins immediately on a flight engine and on an aircraft for it.

A month later in England, Whittle’s engine faces its first test. Built by the British Thomson-Houston Co. at a cost to Power Jets Ltd. of $30,000, it works. Though its output is less than the 1,100 pounds of thrust Whittle hoped for, the fact that it even runs is encouraging. Though financing remains a problem, the government finally agrees to contribute $5,000 and allows Whittle to work on the project full time while drawing his RAF salary. But the government shrouds the entire project in military secrecy, making it even harder to interest investors.

In the US, Douglas is building the world’s largest airplane, the B-19, featuring Pavlecka’s tricycle landing gear and self-sealing fuel tank. The company is uninterested in the jet engine. Meanwhile, Pavlecka and his staff invent flush riveting, a major breakthrough in reducing drag.

Whittle’s improved engine is fired up in April 1938. It runs for four and a half hours before coming apart; it is rebuilt and tested again in October. The lack of money continues to hinder development.

Von Ohain tests his first flight engine at midyear. Designed for 1,800 pounds’ thrust, like Whittle’s, it too falls short and the job of reworking it begins.

A second German jet engine has been under development since 1936, also in strict secrecy. The second jet is also being built by an airframe company, Junkers Flugzeugwerke A.G., with no previous engine experience. Even after the Junkers Airplane Co. merges with the Junkers Motorenbau GmbH, the project is kept secret from the new firm’s engine division. Herbert Wagner, chief of airframe development, feels the engine division is overly cautious and conservative. Wagner sets up his own engine works. With thirty designers under the direction of Max Mueller, the Junkers jet is ready for its first test in mid-1938. It works but cannot be made to run under its own power.

At Douglas, Pavlecka invents the internal hexagonal stop nut, still standard on today’s aircraft, and develops a method of hydropressing with rubber pads that remains a master tool in airplane fabrication. Even though three jet engines have been built and tested, few in the US believe the idea is feasible.

Moving Into High Gear

By 1939, Europe is slipping toward war and the British government’s Director of Scientific Research finally becomes convinced of the Whittle engine’s practicality, the government agrees to fund further development, including a flight engine and a plane for it. The Gloster Aircraft Co. is asked to begin work on an airframe.

The German government has alsobegun to take the jet engine seriously and its Air Ministry steps up organization.

The engine companies are ordered into jet development and the airframe companies are ordered out. BMW, Bramo, and the Junkers engine division agree to begin preliminary design work.

Junkers has no objection to the transfer of jet development to its engine division but its jet engineers do. All but two quit and half are hired by Heinkel.

On August 27, 1939, a Heinkel airplane, the He 178, powered by a single von Ohain engine, the He S-3b, makes the first jet-powered flight in history. Ernst Heinkel has proved that an airframe company can build an engine.

And in the US, former Douglas engineer John Northrop plans to start his own company and asks Pavlecka to join him as chief of research. “I will,” says Pavlecka, “but only if you will seriously consider building a jet engine.

“What’s a jet engine?” asks Northrop.

Pavlecka explains his theory and tells of the illustrated lecture he has been giving. “When do we start?” Northrop asks.

Pavlecka joins the Northrop Aircraft Co. in September 1939. Work on America’s first jet engine gets under way on January 2, 1940.

Early in 1940, England begins to waken to the state of her military unpreparedness. In January, Air Vice Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder gets his first look at the Whittle bench engine. Though the first flight is yet to come, he orders Gloster to begin designing a jet-powered fighter. By year’s end, with the government now finally providing financing, Power Jets grows from fifteen to 134 employees.

The Germans, on the other hand, enter 1940 with complete confide nee in a short, successful war. The General Staff sees no need to push new technology.

Ernst Heinkel ignores the General Staff. Builder of the world’s first rocket-powered plane, he continues to test the first jet plane, which has an engine better than the airplane. The He 178 is directionally unstable at high speed and flies wheels down because the mechanism to raise them won’t work. Even with these problems, the first flights attain speeds of more than 300 mph, close to that of the best propeller-driven fighters.

Heinkel begins work on a new twin-jet fighter, the He 280, and two new engines, a refined version of on Ohain’s and a new axial-flow jet designed by the former Junkers engineers.

Junkers, with only two jet engineers left, decides to begin from scratch and design the simplest and easiest jet possible, even at the cost of lower performance. This engine, designated the 004, is first tested in November 1940.

At Northrop, Pavlecka and his twenty-man staff also start anew, first with thermodynamic principles and cycles, then with the design of turbines and compressors. By March 1940, they have enough technical data to make a presentation to the Powerplant Section of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics. They choose the Navy first because Mr. Friedner, the Section’s civilian engineer, is an advocate of jet power. But Commanders Ricobata and Spangler, the Section’s two engineering officers, demonstrate no interest in the subject. Following the presentation, Commander Ricobata asks how they expect the Navy to fly fire-spitting airplanes from the carriers’ wooden decks.

The presentation to the Army Air Corps’s Powerplant Division at Wright Field in Dayton is no better. Here, not even one person is familiar with the subject. Pavlecka meets with Maj. Donald Keirn and four of his civilian engineers. The engineers understand little of what Pavlecka is talking about. In Europe at this time, thermodynamics is a highly developed science. In the US it isn’t even taught at Caltech. Despite Pavlecka’s labors, the f engineers conclude that it is nonsense. Northrop must continue jet-engine development without government assistance.

Getting Airborne in Britain

Whittle’s W-1 flies on May 15, 1941. With 850 pounds of thrust, his engine drives its Gloster E 28/39 at 334 mph at 5,000 feet and 338 mph at 20,000 feet. At low altitudes, it is faster than Britain’s best fighter. Though the Whittle engine has slightly Jess thrust than yon Ohain’5 first flight engine, the W-l at 623 pounds weighs 162 pounds less than von Ohain’s He S-3b. Pound for pound, the two produce almost the same thrust.

With this success, the government begins to plan for quantity production of Whittle’s engine and the Gloster Meteor. Power Jets continues its research while a production contract goes to the Rover automobile company. In November 1941, the government also sets up the Gas Turbine Collaboration Committee to speed development by all parties.

After the Power Jets successful test flights, Vickers and de Havilland begin work on jet engines of their own.

A month later, Gen. Hap Arnold, Chief of the US Army Air Corps, visits England. He and his assistant, Maj. Donald Keirn, attend a demonstration flight at Gloster. The E 28/39 is waiting, with pilot aboard. “Where are the propellers?” General Arnold asks. “There are none,” his British host replies. “It’s a jet.” “What’s a jet?” asks Arnold.

Major Keirn knows. He had it carefully explained to him nine months earlier. He hadn’t believed it then. He believes it now.

During the plane’s two flights, General Arnold’ is astonished. He orders Keirn to fly two Whittle engines back to General Electric aboard a B- 17. America enters the jet age.

In June 1941, a week after the first Whittle engines arrive in the US, Northrop is awarded a $483,600 joint Army-Navy contract. Not, however, for a jet engine. Still with visions of flame-spouting jets burning their carriers to the waterline, the Navy insists on a huge 2,500-hp turboprop engine, a jet with a propeller on one end. It is a far more difficult concept, already discarded in England and Germany. And while the whole engine is to be designed, the contract calls for the construction of only the compressor.

“I couldn’t believe it,” recalled Pavlecka. “Still, to build a compressor was better than nothing. We started to work.” Meanwhile, he invents the Heliarc welding process.

In Germany, Heinkel’s new He 280 twin-jet fighter is flown with two of von Ohain’s He S-8 engines, but the plane suffers from serious tail flutter.

Germany’s engine companies are now working on several jet and turboprop projects and the shortage of qualified engineers has become a serious problem.

In England, two of the first Rover-built engines are installed in a Meteor in July 1942 for taxi, tests but are unreliable and haven’t enough thrust to get the plane off the ground. By midyear, however, new metal alloys become available both from the US and in England. These allow construction of turbine blades that can withstand the high temperatures inside the engine for more than twenty-five hours before replacement.

The Junkers Effort Pays Off

By the end of 1942, Germany has two 1,900-pound-thrust engines. Heinkel bench tests its new He S-30 in October but the Junkers effort to produce a simple engine in a short time has paid off. Its 004A makes its first flight on an Me 262 on July 18. It weighs 1,870 pounds and produces 1,848 pounds of thrust.

Now the German Air Ministry must decide which of the two is best for full production. While the Heinkel engine is six months behind, it achieves the same thrust while weighing only half as much. Junkers wins, a decision Heinkel believes is more political than technical. The Air Ministry refuses to allow Heinkel to continue development of the He 8-30. Instead, he is to start work on a completely new 3,500-pound-thrust engine.

Germany, short of both nickel and chromium, is having worse problems with metal alloys than the British. The Americans have developed cobalt-based steel for their turbine blades. Above 1,350 degrees, it is superior to any other steel, but Germany has little cobalt. Forced to improvise, the result is the Junkers 004B. When completed, it weighs 1,650 pounds yet includes no nickel or cobalt and only five pounds of chromium. Built of inferior metals, its combustion chamber must be replaced after twenty-five to fifty hours of flying time. It is, however, good enough to become the only production jet to fight in the war.

At Northrop, Pavlecka and an assistant, Fred Dellarbach, build a small test axial compressor. At 1,800 rpm it tests out at ninety-three percent efficiency, and they begin building the large compressor, which, of course they won’t be able to test.

In June 1942, Squadron Leader Whittle visits the US to look at GE’s version of his engine. He is also asked by Washington to examine Northrop’s work.

“He was very taciturn and very nervous,” Pavlecka recalls. “We showed him everything we were doing. He made very few comments. Then he said, ‘You have all our reports from England, don’t you?’

I said, ‘No, we don’t have any reports.’

“‘You’re lying,’ he said. ’We gave those reports to your government for people like you to use to I build on what we have already done.’

“When I finally convinced him that we had received no information at all on Power Jets research, he went right to the phone and called Major Headon, the British military liaison in Washington. I don’t know what Headon told him but, after that phone call, Whittle wanted to leave immediately. We never did get any of his reports.”

Three months later on October 2, 1942, at Muroc Dry Lake in California, a Bell P-59A powered by an American-built GE version of the Whittle engine makes its first flight. In a year of testing it will attain a top speed of 404 mph at 35,000 feet.

Highest Priorities

By 1943, the jet engine finally rates the highest priorities, and the British government makes the first adequate test facilities available. Vickers, de Havilland, and Armstrong Siddeley get access to the steam turbine in an electric power station in Northampton while the government builds a 6,000-hp facility at Whetstone for Power Jets.

By midyear, Rover has raised the thrust of its Whittle engines from 1,100 to their originally hoped—for design rating of 1,600 pounds. Meanwhile, on March 3, 1943, the Gloster Meteormakes its first flight powered not by Whittle engines but by two de Havilland Goblins. Starting back in 1941, with access to all Power Jets’s hard-won knowledge, de Havilland has completed the Goblin in two and a half years. It is cleared for flight at a thrust of 2,000 pounds.

With the crucial work on their famous Merlin reciprocating engines completed, allowed the Spitfires and Hurricanes to outperform the German fighters in the Battle of Britain, Rolls Royce is now ready to take on jet development. It has been working with Power Jets for more than a year through the Gas Turbine Collaboration Committee. Now they formally assume Rover’s mass-production interests and on June 12, 1943, the Meteor is finally flown with Whittle engines, now called the Welland.

By 1043 the German Air Ministry wants jets—now!

Production of the Junkers 004 that first flew in July 1942 is ordered. A production model, the 004B, has been under design since before test of the 004A development model. Now, before test of the 004B, its factories are being built.

BMW is only slightly behind Junkers with the 003. Begun in 1039, it has twenty-two pounds less thrust than the 004 but is easier to maintain.

The Air Ministry orders BMW to continue 003 development. Both BMW’s 003 test engine and Junkers 004B production engine make their first flights in October 1043, in the Me 262.

In the US, with no data on British research, his jet turned into a turboprop, and forced to build a 2,500-hp compressor with no engine to put it in, Pavlecka leaves Northrop and joins Lockheed, which has just received government funding to build a slightly more rational project, its L-1000 jet engine. Lockheed’s design work was begun at the end of 1040 by Nathan Price, a former steam engineer. Though Lockheed engineers have been discussing it with the Army since 1041, it isn’t until May 1043 that they are informed that similar work has long been under way in England and the US and that British jets have been flying since 1941. The only reason the Army informs Lockheed of these facts now is that they want an airframe for de Havilland’s Goblin engine.

Lockheed starts to work on the XP-80 jet fighter and the Army agrees to finance their jet, the L-1000. Lockheed thus joins Northrop and Bell in learning that the jet age is already at least two years old. Most other US aircraft companies have yet to hear anything about it through official channels. Only the steam turbine builders—GE, Westinghouse, and Allis-Chalmers—have had access to the government information. All three have been working on gas turbines for ships. GE is building Whittle engines and has begun the design of its own 4,000-pound-thrust engine, the I-40. Westinghouse has completed work on a small Navy booster jet. And Allis-Chalmers has the Army contract to build de Havilland’s Goblin.

Deliveries of the Weiland, Whittle’s Rolls-Royce-built engine, begin May 1944. Rated at 1,600 pounds’ thrust, it weighs only 850 pounds and drives the Gloster Meteor at a sea level speed of 410 mph. The flying squadrons start to receive the planes in July 1944 and fit them against V-1 flying bombs.

Rolls-Royce continues to upgrade the Weiland in a series of engines named the Derwent. They also begin work on a completely new engine. First run in October 1944 and rated at 4,500 pounds of thrust, it is called the Nene. Scaled down to 2,600 pounds of thrust and installed in a Meteor IV, it is called the Derwent V and establishes a world speed record of 606 mph on November 7, 1945. It is the first British plane to fly faster than Germany’s Me 262.

In Germany, BMW’s 003 goes into production early in 1944, with the 100th engine built by August. It flies mainly in Heinkel’s He 162 of which sixty are in service before war’s end.

A Formidable Weapon

But Germany’s chips are on the Junkers 004B, in full production in March 1944. In the Me 262 twin-jet fighter, it makes a formidable weapon with a top speed of 520 mph at sea level and 541 mph at 26,000 feet. It is close to 100 mph faster than Britain’s Meteor-Welland combination and seventy mph faster than the best conventional Allied fighters.

The 004B requires only 700 man-hours to build, compared to the more thin 3,000 hours for a conventional engine. The problem is aircraft shortages. Flying officers have been urging the Ministry to change Messerschmitt’s factories from conventional Me 109s for nearly a year before Me 262 production finally, begins in the spring of 1944. But then Hitler orders the Me 262 changed from a fighter to a bomber, Göring and the Air Ministry are dumbfounded but have no choice. After extensive design studies and production alterations, Hitler reverses himself. But the damage has been done. Full-scale production is delayed until the fall of 1944.

In spite of constant Allied bombing, 5,000 004B engines and 1,400 Me 262 fighters are built before the war’s end.

Could the Me 262 have made a difference? In January 1945, a squadron of German jets attacks a flight of twelve American bombers protected by a fighter escort. Not a single bomber escapes despite the best efforts of the American fighters.

On the ground, though, the Me 262s are destroyed wherever their specially lengthened runways suggest their presence. Time has run out.

The US has no hope of getting a jet fighter into production before war’s end. GE’s I-40 is certified at 3,750 pounds of thrust and is test flown in Lockheed’s XP-80 on June 10, 1944. With speed of more than 500 mph, it goes into production after the war as the P-80A Shooting Star, but is nearly 100 mph slower than the Rolls-Royce-powered Meteor.

Lockheed’s L-1000 engine has basic design flaws and won’t start. Northrop’s Turbondyne turboprop becomes the first US turboprop engine to run with a propeller in December 1944. John Northrop had hoped to use it to power his Flying Wing, but the engine has become obsolete and never flies.

Frank Whittle started with two goals. In one, the creation of the jet aircraft engine, he succeeded admirably. In the second, the founding of a major industrial concern based on his creation; he failed. Without the war, Power Jets Ltd. might well sit today at the pinnacle of the aerospace industry with patent control over half of jet technology. Instead, its knowledge was shared with GE and the entire British aircraft industry, its production interests were taken over by Rolls-Royce, and its research facilities were nationalized in 1947 and absorbed by Britain’s National Gas Turbine Research Establishment. At that time its best people quit, and Power Jets Ltd. ceased to exist. Frank Whittle has to settle for a tax-free $400,000 and a knighthood.

Both Ernst Heinkel and Pabst yon Ohain continue work in the aircraft industry, with Heinkel in Germany and Yon Ohain in the US. Though their 1939 jet was the first to fly, they were outmaneuvered by Messerschmitt and Junkers, due mainly, Heinkel believes, to better Air Ministry connections.

A production turboprop engine continues to elude everyone until Pavlecka, back with Douglas in 1947, creates a design that Douglas sells to the Navy, which sells it to General Motors’s Allison Division, which builds it as the T-39 and T-40 for the Lockheed Electra.

So who won the race? The Germans, but they were scratched. The victory went to England, with the US a poor third.

The Second Race

There is now, however, a second .race which, many feel, the US has already yon by a wide margin. They say we now stand alone, the world leader in jet technology. Right? Wrong, in Pavlecka’s opinion.

According to that engineering genius, we’re only ahead at the three-quarter post. The Japanese and Europeans are close on our heels, and the outcome is still in doubt.

The problem, Pavlecka warned before his death in June of 1980, is what caused the US to come in last in the first jet race. “The problem,” according to Pavlecka, “is America’s commitment to technology. We haven’t made it yet.

“American industry is still committed to short-term profit at the expense of long-term progress. If a new product can make our managers look good on the balance sheet in a couple of years, they’ll go all out for it. But if it won’t pay off for ten years or more, forget it. They will have moved on to other companies by then. What’s good for the country and the future seldom helps next year’s profit statement. You don’t believe it? Look at steel, at shipbuilding, at textiles, television sets, and automobiles. Come back in ten years and look at chemicals’ and maybe even semiconductors.

“Japan made her commitment to technology years ago. Europe is working on it now. Tamotsu Harada of Japan’s Electronic Industry Association was recently quoted as saying, ‘We are looking twenty to thirty years ahead, but the US idea of long-term is two to three years.’ That’s the problem.”

As for Vladimir Pavlecka, he spent the ten years before his death developing the contrarotating gas turbine but was unable to interest anyone in it. He also developed a more efficient wind turbine, now being tested in California, and returned, finally, to his first love, the mental dirigible he helped build for the US Navy back in 1929. He designed a modern, pressurized, all-metal airship that can carry as much as a 747 over the same distance while burning seventy percent less fuel. He put together eighty-seven slides and a lecture that he gave to anyone who was interested. Most people didn’t believe him, but he was used to that.

Lee Payne is a California native, presently the Chief Photographer of the Orange Coast Daily Pilot in that state. His book, Lighter than Air, An Illustrated History of the Airship, was published in the US by A. S. Barnes & Co. It led to an introduction to Vladimir Pavlecka, on the major contributors to modern aviation, and Payne’s development of this article about the concurrent achievements in jet engines in three countries—the UK, Germany, and the US.