Frank Whittle's name carries plenty of weight in the U.K. where he earned the #42 slot on a 2002 poll of the 100 Greatest Britons, but overseas fame has eluded him. “Whittle: The Jet Pioneer,” a documentary produced for History Channel UK in 2007 for the centenary of his birth, probably won't do much to change that, but with its release on a DVD from Shelter Island, perhaps the legacy of the great aviation engineer will expand just a bit.
Whittle (1907-1996) was rebuffed in his initial efforts to join the RAF; the scrawny sixteen year old couldn't pass the physical and had to connive his way into an apprentice program where he trained as an airplane mechanic. Whittle's real dream was to fly, however, and he eventually became an accomplished pilot, accomplished enough to crash several planes and walk away intact each time.
His experience as both mechanic and pilot led him to formulate a bold idea to abandon the piston engines that shook planes violently and limited their altitude and velocity, and instead to adopt a design that would come to be known as the turbojet. As with any invention, there are multiple claimants to the title “father of jet propulsion,” but Whittle is usually the man given credit.
Nobody handed him the title, though. The post-WWI British government had only marginal interest in Whittle's earliest designs, some of which relied on technology that was not yet available but was in the planning stages, and the RAF saw more use for his then considerable skills as a pilot than as an engineer.
But Whittle believed in his ideas, and turned to private funding when the government delayed its tepidly promised support. Meanwhile, Whittle's patents were not protected and were readily available to a more receptive audience in Nazi Germany, who got a head start on the U.K. in the great air race by, at least in part, using the designs of a British citizen, though the Germans already had their own engineering designs as well. At the very least, the Nazis had a better sense of what they were competing against than the Britons did.
As the war drums beat louder, the U.K. government finally caught on and embraced Whittle's plans, but there was a legitimate fear that they had waited too long. I guess you know that it turned out OK in the end, though not without hard feelings on Whittle's part after his private company was nationalized and much of his technology put in the hands of General Electric who had the capacity to build jet engines en masse. Indeed, Whittle often more success and acknowledgment in the States than back home.
The documentary draws heavily on a single interview conducted with an elderly Whittle who is seated in a lawn chair. I didn't notice any identifying date on the footage, but he looks to be in his 70's or 80's. Whittle is quite eloquent and soft-spoken as he recounts his struggle for acceptance, though of course he has the luxury of doing so from the perspective of a man whose legacy was eventually recognized. So you can't blame him for the “I told them so” subtext that runs through his interview. German engineer Hans von Ohain, another jet propulsion pioneer who worked for the Nazis during the war then later for the U.S. Military, also appears. Von Ohain and Whittle were dueling from afar on an almost week-to-week basis to be the first to create a practical jet engine design for the war, each working furiously to stay one step ahead.
It's a fascinating story and Whittle is a compelling enough presence, but director Nicholas Jones is faced with the familiar problem of having almost no original footage to rely on aside from the interviews and his B-roll is decidedly uninspired. Much of the documentary consists random shots of shots of buildings where Whittle once worked or went to school and lots of planes landing and taking off as the subjects or the narrator advance the story. It's a very static visual experience and I'm not sure how much you learn from this 71-minute documentary that you couldn't glean from a few hours of research (Whittle's Wiki entry is quite extensive, by the way), but hearing Whittle speak for himself is certainly of considerable value.
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The interlaced transfer is mediocre, but acceptable, and I wonder if it was dubbed from a PAL source but I don't know that for sure. In any case, there's no scintillating photography anyway, so what we get is sufficient for the material.
The Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack is clean and the British accents shouldn't present any difficulties for American listeners. However, subtitles (which are not offered) would have been helpful with some of the names that are mentioned throughout.
The disc includes six short featurettes, including seven minutes of footage on the runway at Gatwick, a five minute tribute from Whittle's funeral delivered by his son Ian, and several brief information pieces on subjects such as interrogating the Nazis and centrifugal force.
“Whittle: The Jet Pioneer” is a no-frills History Channel UK documentary that focuses strictly on delivering the basic information about one of the most important engineers and scientists of the World War II era. Sir Frank Whittle passed away in 1996 at the age of 89, but millions of people's lives are still changed on a daily basis by his signature accomplishment.