Whittle was born in Coventry on 1 June 1907. After attending Leamington College he applied to join the RAF as an apprentice in January 1923. He was successful in the entrance exam, only to fail the medical on account of his diminutive stature. After going through a strenuous physical exercise programme, he applied again six months later and was accepted. In 1926 he was offered a cadetship to the RAF College, Cranwell, and began training as a pilot. After passing out of the College in 1928, he undertook various flying duties including service in III Fighter Squadron at Hornchurch and postings to the Flying Training School, Digby, and the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment, Felixstowe, as a float plane test pilot. In 1934 he graduated from the Officers' School of Engineering at Henlow with such exceptional results that he was sent to Cambridge University as an undergraduate of Peterhouse to take the Mechanical Sciences Tripos.
While still at Cranwell Whittle wrote a thesis exploring the possibilities of flight at higher altitudes and speeds. He examined the potential of rocket propulsion and gas turbines but the idea of using a gas turbine for jet propulsion did not occur to him until the year after he left Cranwell. The Air Ministry believed the gas turbine to be completely impracticable but Whittle nevertheless took out a patent in 1930. His attempts to attract commercial interest in the idea were fruitless until 1935 when he was still at Cambridge. Two friends and former RAF pilots, Rolf Dudley Williams and J.C.B. Tinling, who were in business together, secured financial backing from a city banking firm and, after negotiations with the Air Ministry, a company called Power Jets Ltd was formed. Whittle was allotted shares in return for assigning all his patent rights to the company, while a contract for the design of an experimental bench engine, the 'WU' was given to the British Thomson Houston Company, Rugby. After gaining a first Class Honours at Cambridge, Whittle was granted a further postgraduate year to supervise the work on the WU which made its first run on 12 April 1937.
Whittle was appointed to the Special Duty List and continued to work for Power Jets as Honorary Chief Engineer. By June 1939 the work had progressed sufficiently for the Air Ministry to place an order for a flight engine (the W.1) with the company. The Gloster Aircraft Company was contracted to build an experimental aircraft, the E.28/39, which was to be powered by the W.1. The highly successful first test flights of E.28/39 on 15 May 1941 resulted in an expansion of the project and the beginning of co-operation between Britain and the USA on the development of the turbo-jet engine. Before the outcome of the test flights a decision was taken to build a twin-engined fighter, the Gloster F.9/40 (Meteor), using the more powerful W.2.B engine. In 1944 the Meteor entered service and was the only Allied jet to be operational in World War Two. Before his attachment to Power Jets ended in 1946, Whittle was also responsible for the development of the W2/500 and the W.2/700 engines, the parents of subsequent Rolls-Royce engines.
The nationalisation of Power Jets in 1944 hastened the break up of a remarkably talented and dedicated team of engineers. In 1946 the company (with the exception of a 'rump', Power Jets R & D Ltd) was merged with part of the Royal Aircraft Establishment to form the National Gas Turbine Establishment which was chiefly restricted to research work and excluded from designing and developing engines. Whittle and most of his team resigned and his bitterness over the Government's policy remained for many years. As the break up of the team resulted in the abandonment of turbo-fan and exhaust-fan projects (arising from a number of Whittle patents), he could claim with some justification that nationalisation seriously retarded Britain's post-war jet industry. In 1948 he retired from the RAF on grounds of ill health, leaving with the rank of Air Commodore. Shortly afterwards he received a gratuity of £100,000 from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors which took into account the fact that he had handed over all his shares in Power Jets to the government when the company was nationalised.
From 1948 to 1952 he was technical advisor on aircraft gas turbines to the British Overseas Airways Corporation, travelling extensively in the USA, Canada, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In 1953, having completed his book Jet: The Story of a Pioneer, Whittle turned to his interest in oil industry technology and joined the Shell Group as Mechanical Engineering Specialist to one of their subsidiaries. He devoted most of his energy to developing his patented turbo-drill which incorporated a hydraulic turbine to drive the cutting bit. Whittle left Shell in 1957 and the project was shelved until 1961 when Bristol Siddeley Engines became interested in its practical development. A subsidiary company, Bristol Siddeley Whittle Tools was formed in 1963 but Rolls-Royce's takeover of Bristol Siddeley in 1966 had serious consequences for the drill project. Support for the latter stages of development fell away as Rolls-Royce's financial difficulties increased and by 1971 work on the drill ceased, despite demonstrations of its commercial practicability.
In 1976 Whittle emigrated to the USA. He returned to aerodynamic work, taking up the post of NAVAIR Research Professor at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, in 1977. His research concentrated on the boundary layer before his professorship became part-time from 1978 to 1979. The part time post enabled him to write a textbook on gas turbine aero-thermodynamics.
During the years following his retirement from the RAF Whittle gave a number of lectures on the development of the aircraft gas turbine, supersonic travel and the oil industry, including the 1954 Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution. He participated in several anniversary events commemorating the first running of the WU and the first flight of the E.28/39. After his move to the USA, he became friends with the German jet pioneer, Hans von Ohain, and the two regularly attended conferences and functions, sometimes giving joint presentations.
In the years following World War Two Whittle sometimes expressed strong views on two major political issues: immigration and nationalisation. He was Chairman of the Migration Council, 1950-1951, and advocated planned emigration from Britain to Commonwealth countries to reduce over-population. His extreme dislike of nationalisation led him away from his earlier Socialist beliefs and at the 1955 General Election he gave a public address at Exeter supporting Rolf Dudley-Williams, the Conservative Party candidate. In 1964 Whittle gave an election address at Smethwick where the campaign was dominated by immigration issues.
Whittle's honours were numerous and included a C.B.E. (1944), C.B. (1947), knighthood (1948), Fellowship of the Royal Society (1947) and membership of the Order of Merit (1986). He was also made a Commander, US Legion of Merit (1946). He was a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a fellow or member of many other scientific and learned societies in the UK and abroad. He was a Founder Fellow of the Fellowship of Engineering (Royal Academy of Engineering), 1976, and received honorary degrees from several universities, including Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester, Edinburgh and Trondheim (Norway).
Whittle married Dorothy Mary Lee in 1930 and they had two sons. The marriage was dissolved in 1976 and Whittle married Hazel S. Hall in the same year. He died on 9 August 1996.
The collection held at Churchill Archives Centre includes biographical material; research and development; publications; lectures and broadcasts; vists and conferences; societies and organisations; correspondence and non-textual material.
The Whittle Papers were deposited at Churchill Archives Centre in 1996, although a small additional accession had been deposited in 1975. From June 2002 to October 2003, the collection was at the University of Bath for cataloguing by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists.
When the Whittle papers were provisionally listed by Churchill Archives Centre staff, 3 archive boxes of ephemeral material were identified as not being worthy of permanent preservation (eg. Personal cheques and financial correspondence; printed magazines without contributions from Whittle; etc). Some of this material was returned to the Whittle family and the remainder was destroyed in October 2000.