Before World War II, in 1939, jet engines primarily existed in labs. The end of the war, however, illustrated that jet engines, with their great power and compactness, were at the forefront of aviation development.
A young German physicist, Hans von Ohain, worked for Ernst Heinkel, specializing in advanced engines, to develop the world’s first jet plane, the experimental Heinkel He 178. It first flew on August 27, 1939.
Building on this advancement, German engine designer Anselm Franz developed an engine suitable for use in a jet fighter. This airplane, the Me 262, was built by Messerschmitt. Though the only jet fighter to fly in combat during World War II, the Me 262 spent a significant amount of time on the ground due to its high consumption of fuel. It was often described as a “sitting duck for Allied attacks.” Meanwhile, in England, Frank Whittle invented a jet engine completely on his own. The British thus developed a successful engine for another early jet fighter—the Gloster Meteor. Britain used it for homeland defense but, due to lack of speed, it was not used to combat over Germany.
The British shared Whittle’s technology with the U.S., allowing General Electric (GE) to build jet engines for America’s first jet fighter, the Bell XP-59. The British continued to develop new jet engines from Whittle’s designs, with Rolls-Royce initiating work on the Nene engine during 1944. The company sold Nenes to the Soviets—a Soviet version of the engine, in fact, powered the MiG-15 jet fighter that later fought U.S. fighters and bombers during the Korean War.
The 1945 surrender of Germany revealed substantial wartime discoveries and inventions. General Electric and Pratt & Whitney, another American engine-builder, added German lessons to those of Whittle and other British designers. Early jet engines, such as those of the Me 262, gulped fuel rapidly. Thus, an initial challenge was posed: to build an engine that could provide high thrust with less fuel consumption.
Pratt & Whitney resolved this dilemma in 1948 by combining two engines into one. The engine included two compressors; each rotated independently, the inner one giving high compression for good performance. Each compressor drew power from its own turbine; hence there were two turbines, one behind the other. This approach led to the J-57 engine. Commercial airliners—the Boeing 707, the Douglas DC-8—flew with it. One of the prominent postwar engines, it entered service with the U.S. Air Force in 1953.