Retrotechtacular: The Jet Story

A plane from Britain is met in the US by armed security. The cargo? An experimental engine created by Air Commodore [Frank Whittle], RAF engineer air officer. This engine will be further developed by General Electric under contract to the US government. This is not a Hollywood thriller; it is the story of the jet engine.

The idea of jet power started to get off the ground at the turn of the century. Cornell scholar [Sanford Moss]’ gas turbine thesis led him to work for GE and ultimately for the Army. Soon, aircraft were capable of dropping 2,000 lb. bombs from 15,000 feet to cries of ‘you sank my battleship!’, thus passing [Billy Mitchell]’s famous test.

The World War II-era US Air Force was extremely interested in turbo engines. Beginning in 1941, about 1,000 men were working on a project that only 1/10 were wise to. During this time, American contributions tweaked [Whittle]’s design, improving among other things the impellers and rotor balancing. This was the dawn of radical change in air power.

Six months after the crate arrived and the contracts were signed, GE let ‘er rip in the secret testing chamber. Elsewhere at the Bell Aircraft Corporation, top men had been working concurrently on the Airacomet, which was the first American jet-powered plane ever to take to the skies.

In the name of national defense, GE gave their plans to other manufacturers like Allison to encourage widespread growth. Lockheed’s F-80 Shooting Star, the first operational jet fighter, flew in June 1944 under the power of an Allison J-33 with a remarkable 4,000 pounds of thrust.

GE started a school for future jet engineers and technicians with the primary lesson being the principles of propulsion. The jet engine developed rapidly from this point on.

[Thank you to Hernandi for sending this in]

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.


31 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Jet Story

        1. Try first jet fighter in allied hands. The Meteor and the Shooter are tied for that. But the Meteor saw combat, although being used to shoot down cruise missiles, that is the V1 bird, And it came darned close concerning the Shooter. There are rumors that several were sent to forward airbases, but only rumors.

          1. The article says:
            Lockheed’s F-80 Shooting Star, the first operational jet fighter, flew in June 1944

            Operational jet fighter clearly doesn’t mean one that operated, it means one that flew operation.

            The Caproni was not a jet that ever saw combat.
            thus cannot possibly be first operational jet fighter.

            However, the article is clearly wrong.
            the source cited in the article says:
            In June 1943 Lockheed was instructed to proceed with the design and development of a new single-seat fighter,

            so, no, it didn’t fly in June 1944, it wasn’t even designed in June 1944,
            The ME262 was the first operational jet fighter
            The Gloucester Meteor that was the first allied operational jet fighter.

            There are no ties for that.
            Heinkel HE178
            first flight August 1939
            introduced to service – Never

            Caproni first flight august 1940 (so not the first jet flight)
            introduced to service – Never (so not the first operational)
            Maybe, just the first Italien Jet!

            Messerschmitt ME262
            first flight – July 1942 (with jet engine)
            introduced to service April 1944 – the first ever operational jet fighter

            Gloucester meteor
            First flight March 1943 (before the f80 started being designed)
            Introduced to service July 44 – clearly not the first ever, but the first Allied

            Lockheed F-80
            First flight January 1944 (so not the first flight of allied jet craft)
            Introduced to service October 1944 (not the first allied jet)

            But crucially none saw operations in WW2 -so it was in service in October 1944, but can’t really be said to be operational (i.e involved in combat operations) until the Korean war in 1950.

            So it wasn’t the first jet, it wasn’t the first jet in service, it wasn’t the first operational jet, and it didn’t even first during the war it was commissioned in.
            It was only the first American Jet.

            And the story is a bunch of rubbish anyway, Blue prints were sent, no Jet engine was ever sent, there was no big crate. more likely a pasty scientist with a briefcase.

            If these Retrotechtacular stories are supposed to look at history, then it might actually be an idea to get the history involved accurate! -you could at least start by reading the source that you link to!

  1. Quite correct. It happens that the F-80 also called the P (for Pursuit)-80 Shooting Star was operational, at the same time as that P-59 job. The bird nearly got assigned to everything overseas, except that the fighting there was largely done at the time she was flying. However jet fighters were used by the Brits to combat the buzzbombs. Oddly enough similarly configured fighters were used by the Axis for going against the B17 flights. Didn’t work…….

    1. Jetfighters used by the britts to fight buzzbombs? Strange, never heard that before.
      Is that the V-1, because I thought they were slow enough to be shot down by a prop plane..
      Never heard about ally jet fighter (armed plane) used during WW2.

      1. Yes the Meteor was used to shoot down the V-1. Only a few prop fighters could intercept V-1s and those could usually only do so in a dive.
        The early Meteors had issues with high altitude performance become of compressibility but down low they were pretty fast. Later Meteors had much longer engine nacelles to improve high altitude performance.

          1. I believe that it was the Mosquito (the “Wooden Wonder”) that was one of the prop planes used to shoot down V1 missiles. If memory serves, it was one of the fastest, if not the fastest allied prop-driven plane, if you don’t count the myriad of quasi-experimental planes that never saw much service.

          2. The Hurricane was no where near fast enough to intercept the V-1. The Hawker Tempest was the prop fighter of choice for the intercept. The Mosquito was also as fast as the late model Spitfires, Mustangs, Tempests, Me-109, FW-190 and so on. It was fast enough to not get caught often but it was not faster than the fighters later in the war.
            Of course reccon versions without weapons and flying at very high altitudes where very fast indeed.
            The Mosquito was used to intercept V-1s at night since it was the fastest night fighter but it had to dive to catch the V-1 and have a good bit of luck as well. The Mosquito was a great plane but it’s fans tend to inflate it past all reason.
            This is the best of bomber versions at the very end of the war.
            As you can see 415mph at 28,000ft it was a good bit slower down low.
            While the Tempest was faster at a lower altitude.
            And the Mustang was also faster at the same alititude

  2. First operational jet fighter or US first operational jet fighter?
    First flight: 18 April 1941 with piston engine
    18 July 1942 with jet engines
    Introduction: April 1944

    First flight: 8 January 1944
    Introduction: 1945

    Also, the bristish Meteor was introduced in 1944, before P-80 tooz.

  3. The most interesting thing is that while nobody has or had problems crediting Whittle and acknowledging that his design was the basis for all allied engines, the guy never received a single dollar or pound, while RR and GE filled their pockets to the brim…

    The guy not only came up with the idea, he also fought long and hard to receive funding to build a few demonstrator prototypes (the first one over-reved and pretty much self-destructed), despite all the neighsayers and technical problems. Lack of heat-resistant steel was just one of many.

    If it wasn’t for him, the jet engine would come many years later…

    1. He let the patent lapse (ostensibly because he couldn’t afford the 5 pound renewal fee), but I recall reading that eventually the British government paid him a good deal (100,000 pounds I think) for his efforts, but that might be wrong. FWIW his place in history is assured.

      It is certainly wrong that it would have come along much later, given that several countries were working on the idea – as with most developments there were several competitors close behind. The real developments in turbines were more subtle – mostly having to do with making the things last more than a few hours of operation (there’s a warbird collector who owns a local FBO (small airport) and has a ME-262 engine on a stand; the hot section parts were slag after a couple of dozen hours of run time) and the ongoing quest to make them more fuel-efficient.

    2. Don’t forget the Russians (don’t know if you meant to include them when you said the allies). Just after the Labour government in Britain gave a bunch of Rolls Royce Nene jet engines to the Russians, at the time the Ruskies were just working with data they got from the Gremans, the Nene, which they reverse engineered, gave them a quantum leap in Jet development and powered the MiG 15s the UN faced in the Korean War, thanks Labour!

      1. And in the Korean war, the Russian Migs powered by their reverse engineered Nene’s were fighting US Sabres powered by an American developement of the same engine. I remember reading this in the ’80s in one of LJK Setrights books.

  4. my grandfather worked for GE as an engineer, then went into the army air corps in 1939. he was recalled to work on the jet engine project because of his experience with turbosuperchargers on P-38’s.

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