Friday, 9 June 2017

Celebrating 80 Years of Jet EngineTechnology

Frank Whittle - Building 4 BTH (now GE), Rugby
April 2017 saw the anniversary of Frank Whittle first gas turbine/jet engine run. On the 12th of April it was exactly 80 years that the first engine run took place in Building 4 at British Thomson Houston, in Rugby.

There were two celebrations of this anniversary, one by the Warwickshire Industrial Archaeology Society (WIAS) and one by our Group. Both celebrations had that event in 1937 at the centre, however, they were very different.

Ian Whittle and GE Factory Manager
On the 12th of April 2017, both Ray Ball and I were invited by the WIAS to join them in a visit to GE in Rugby for a tour of the factory and lunch at Brownsover Hall in Frank Whittle's 1937 design office. We were joined by Ian Whittle, Sir Frank's son, and his charming wife who had travelled up the day before and stayed in the Brownsover Hall Hotel.
The factory tour was fascinating and quite an eye opener in terms of how these generators are manufactured. There was far more manual work involved than imagined and some of the work being carried out appeared very labour intensive.
The end of the tour was on the mezzanine floor in Building 4 and we walked the length of that floor and paused near the spot where that first engine was anchored to the wall, jet pipe sticking out through the window and Frank Whittle trying to control the runaway engine....not quite to plan by all accounts, but no disaster ensued.

Who are these two?
Back at the Brownsover Hall Hotel there were three model engines on display, two belonging to Ian Whittle, the other belonging to the Lutterworth Museum. Lunch was served in what in 1937 was Frank Whittle's design office and that was followed by a talk by Ian Whittle. Having said goodbye to the Whittle's some of us went to the Rugby Art Gallery where an exhibition on BTH was being put together. It was not quite finished yet, however, it gave a good impression of BTH, its workforce and its effect on the local economy. This visit brought to an end an interesting and reflective day.

On Tuesday 25 April 2017 The Rugby Aviation Group commemorated the legacy that Sir Frank Whittle left the world. The first jet engines were fragile as metallurgy had not been developed sufficiently, especially the axial engines that were developed in Germany during the same period by Hans von Ohain. It is well known that the Messerschmitt Me-262's Jumo engines had a lifespan of 25 hours after which they had to be replaced.

The Rugby Aviation Group Event Poster

As time progressed and technology developed jet engines became multi-spool and multi-stage, developed into turboprops, turboshafts and turbofans for the aviation industry for both civil and military applications. 

Gas turbines have been derived and built to propel ships, trains as well as power stations. The future if this technology appears fine especially with the new generations of power plants being developed that are more efficient and environmentally friendly.

The evening was spent in company of Tony Buttler and Jock Heron, who each related part of the legacy story, Tony from the early beginnings to the early Fifties and Jock picking up from there to the modern day. There was a fascinating kaleidoscope of images, some not seen before of engines and aircraft, highlighting the diversity of power plants and aircraft that were developed, some as prototypes only, that served the armed forces and airlines of the worlds, following on from the trusted, but outdated piston engines.

Both celebrations were truly memorable occasions and my thanks to Alaine Foote of the WIAS for inviting Ray and I and to Tony and Jock for telling us the stories they did.

Theo Claassen
30 April 2017