How The Jet Engine Revolutionized Aviation

The jet engine is one of the most important breakthroughs in aviation history, as it revolutionized the way people fly. From Boeing to Airbus, no matter where you travel, the aircraft you are in is most likely to be powered by this technology.

Boeing 747-400
The jet engines, pictured here on the iconic Boeing 747 have become a staple for any commercial aircraft. Photo: Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia Commons

However, this technology wasn’t used commercially until the middle of the last century. The modern jet engine was invented by Frank Whittle in 1930. The engine’s capability to rapidly deliver products, transfer passengers and deploy artillery has changed how the world is run.

Early skepticism

Whittle was only in his early twenties when he thought of the idea of using a gas turbine for jet propulsion. The former RAF officer applied for a patent in 1930, however UK government institutions weren’t interested in supporting or funding further research.

Germany had its own jet research program and when his patent ran out in 1935, Whittle couldn’t afford the five pounds to renew it. Therefore, the pioneer didn’t receive any royalties for his invention and the German research team took it over.

The Germans cultivated their research into jet engines to help their efforts leading into World War II. Aircraft manufacturer, Ernst Heinkel, provided funding to engineer Max Han and physicist, Hans von Ohain to construct a totally new engine that ran on hydrogen.

As a result, the Heinkel He178 took off from Marienehe aerodrome on August 27th, 1939, and became the first-ever jet-powered aircraft. Fellow German Anselm Franz then developed the Jumo 004 engine, which had an axial-flow turbojet. This engine was used in the Messerschmitt Me262 in 1942, which was the first jet fighter plane in the skies during the Second World War.

Heinkel, He 178
The Heinkel, He178 was the first aircraft flown using a jet engine. Photo: SDASM Archives via Flickr

Faster flights

Four years after the war finished, the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC), flew the first-ever commercial jet-powered airliner on July 27, 1949. The predecessor to British Airways then introduced the first-ever commercial jet service on May 2, 1952. The first flights on this de Havilland DH 106 Comet service flew from London to Johannesburg.

The flight’s scenic route stopped in Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe and Livingstone. Passengers on these flights sat back at a speed of 480 miles per hour. This is over 2.5 times faster than the Douglas DC-3, which was one of the most popular commercial airliners of the time. The DC-3’s piston engine powered the aircraft for a cruising speed of around 180 miles per hour.

These jetliners didn’t just revolutionize the speed of travel, but also the comfort. The jets helped planes to become free from vibration, making them far less noisy than their counterparts.

Worldwide staple

Pan American World Airways helped catalyze jet engine use from the second half of the 20th century. In October 1955, The CEO of the iconic airline, Juan Trippe, ordered 45 jetliners to venture across the Atlantic.

These units included 20 Boeing 707s and 25 Douglas DC-8s. Pan Am launched its 707-powered New York-London route on October 26th, 1958. This brought with it a new era for commercial aviation, with a record 111 passengers on the flight. This was the largest number of passengers ever to board single regularly scheduled service.

Pan Am 707
The Pan Am 707 fully commercialized the use of jet engines for flights departing the United States. Photo: Piergiuliano Chesi via Wikimedia Commons

Pan Am and Boeing soon collaborated on a 707 model that could fly for longer without refueling. Therefore, the 707-320 was introduced on August 15, 1959, to become the first true intercontinental service. This service saw passengers fly regularly between the two cities without any stop on the way for the first time.

A few decades later, in 1970, Boeing introduced the famous, 747 model. This jet became the largest jet by passenger capacity at the time of its launch. Despite its large capacity, the aircraft still offered plenty of room for roaming.

Jet engines have gone on to become a staple within the aviation industry ever since. Sights of the recognizable turbines can be seen on aircraft at airports and in the skies from all airline companies. Longer distances, at quicker times, with greater comfort can all be achieved today thanks to the invention of this revolutionary engine.