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Hans von Ohain (left) and Frank Whittle

Recognition is overdue for the two quiet ‘power pioneers’ of aviation who opened the door to high-speed flight.

I earned a few odd looks from others waiting for the Washington, D.C., subway because they must have heard me muttering, “I shook the hand of von Ohain.” So who is this von Ohain?

It was late last summer, and I had just attended a memorial service for Sir Frank Whittle. So who was this Whittle?

Whittle and Hans-Joachim Pabst von Ohain are not household names in the United States. The two men were not hotshot pilots who scored record aerial victories or who flew airplanes faster, farther, higher. But those who fly in the military or travel by commercial airline owe the ability to do so to these two “power pioneers,” for they, separately and on opposite sides prior to and during World War II, developed the jet engine.

The tried-and-true reciprocating piston engine was the aircraft power plant of choice in the later years of the 1930s and the 1940s as the world was plunged into war by Adolf Hitler, and both sides needed to get as many planes as they could into the air quickly. Long-range research projects often were met with little enthusiasm by battle-oriented leaders who were more concerned with fielding men and equipment than waiting for developments that might be long in coming.

Whittle in England and von Ohain in Germany both recognized that the piston engine would soon run out of development potential. More power required more size, weight and complexity.

The two inventors each gradually gained enough grudging acquiescence in their respective countries for their revolutionary power plants to be built and tested. Lo and behold, the jet engine worked–and provided the hoped-for breakthrough in high power for low weight and small size that resulted in a quantum jump in speed, altitude and carrying capacity. It provided the greatest leap forward in aviation since the first powered flight at the beginning of the century.

The obstacles of bureaucratic indifference and technological challenges had been enough to dismay any inventor, but the vision of jet power drove Whittle and von Ohain on to eventual success. It is this perseverance, combined with engineering skills, that we salute in both of these unsung aviation pioneers. Sir Frank, we wish you well on your “trip west,” and Dr. von Ohain, may you be well honored in your lifetime.

Faulty Memories?

One of the challenges of accurately presenting historical events involves sorting through the various first-person accounts and reaching a consensus about what really happened. That fact was brought home to us recently via a letter from the American Fighter Aces Association.

Remember the Roy Grinnell painting reproduced on this page? It was used in our November 1996 issue to illustrate an article about World War I fighter ace George Vaughn. The accompanying caption stated, “A Pfalz D.IIIa becomes Lieutenant George Vaughn’s First Victory on June 16, 1918. Contrary to Roy Grinnell’s painting, however, Vaughn’s flight leader stated that he was the only Allied witness to Vaughn’s feat.”

Author (and Aviation History senior editor) Jon Guttman’s contention that Vaughn’s flight leader, Captain Hugh W.L. “Dingbat” Saunders, was the only witness to Vaughn’s first victory was based on Guttman’s earlier personal interviews with both Vaughn and Saunders. In the painting, however, you’ll note, besides Saunders’ plane in the background, three more SE-5a fighters of No. 84 Squadron obviously in a position to witness the action. Guttman felt it worth noting that the painting did not agree with the account of the action as related to him by Saunders and Vaughn.

Artist Grinnell and the American Fighter Aces Association, which commissioned the painting, sent us a copy of a battle report signed by G.A. Vaughn and published in a 1961 issue of the Cross and Cockade aviation journal, in which Vaughn wrote after a description of the action, “This is confirmed by Lieuts. Manzer, Mathews, and Fyfe of this Squadron; also by the bombers who we were escorting, No. 205 Sqdn.”

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that memories related years after the fact don’t always agree with the official record. Thanks to the American Fighter Aces Association for helping to set the record straight.

Arthur H. Sanfelici, Editor, Aviation History