This May marks 75 years since an eccentric looking little aircraft coded W4041/G took to the skies for the first time. It surely would have grabbed plenty of attention to anyone giving this new machine a passing glance as it was missing something fairly crucial; the propellor.
As early as 1941 Britain had seen its first jet propelled aircraft take to the sky and a whole new chapter of british aviation history began.
I’ll be covering Frank Whittle’s work in developing the jet engine quite extensively as part of my long term Aero Engines project but it goes without saying that he was the driving force behind the E28 getting this far.
In the autumn of 1939 the government approached Gloster with the proposal of building a testbed airframe for one of Whittle’s turbojet designs. While the main purpose of this specification was to provide a suitable testbed for the new power plant it was also envisaged as being an early experiment in a jet powered fighter. The proposal also asked for two machine guns to be installed on the airframe.
The task of designing the first British jet aircraft fell to Gloster’s chief designer; George Carter. After working closely with Whittle eventually coming up with the familiar low wing monoplane that we are all now familiar with.
There was much discussion in the design stages as to how the aircraft should be configured. Jet power was in its infancy and it was unclear whether a long tailpipe would result in too much power being lost. An early alternative for the design was to feature a short jet pipe and a narrow boom continuing on the the tailplane. This would have presented a similar look to the Bell P-59. It was also unknown how the spinning jet engine would affect the stability of the airframe, so a twin fin design was also considered, which would likely have drawn comparisons to the alter german HE162 design.
Two prototypes were ordered with the first airframe being completed in April 1941. On the 7th of that month the new aircraft undertook ground tests at Brockworth, though short hops were actually carried out as part of the process.
Following successful early tests the aircraft was fitted with a flightworthy Powerjets W.1 and moved to Cranwell for full flight testing.
It was at Cranwell where the machines first full test flight would take place on the 15th May 1941. That first flight lasted 17 minutes. A number of test flights followed and they saw speeds of 350mph achieved at 25,000ft. As high speed testing continued during development end plates were fitted to the horizontal stabilisers in order to aid rudder effectiveness during turns.
The First British Jet Pilot
The man behind the controls on this historic flight was Flight Lieutenant Gerry Sayer, Gloster’s chief test pilot. Sayer was born in Colchester in February 1905 and joined the air force in 1924. His first position was to Duxford with 29 squadron. He had a varied early career learning his trade in Avro 504s before progressing to the Sopwith Snipe and eventually becoming a test pilot at Martlesham heath, the then home of the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment.
In 1929 Sayer was transferred to a reserve rank. This allowed him to take up the role of second test pilot at Hawker aircraft. While at Hawker’s he also took part in the Kings Cup Air Race in 1930 flying a Desoutter.
Following his time at Hawker he progressed to the Gloster company, where he was appointed chief test pilot in November 1934.
Sayer was tragically killed in October 1942 while carrying out gunsight testing in a Hawker Typhoon. Sayer’s aircraft is believed to have been involved with a collision with another Typhoon.
Following Sayer’s untimely death, it fell to Michael Daunt to take over the flight testing programme. Once the initial test programme was complete the aircraft was handed over to RAE.
Following the first prototype’s success, the second aircraft (W4046) which was powered by a Rover W2B engine. As testing continued it became apparent that there were problems with the oil and lubricants used. ‘046 was to perform the type’s first public display in front of Winston Churchill and other senior government and air force official at Hatfield in April 1943. Shortly after this display, a Powerjets W2.B was fitted, leading to a speed of 466 mph being recorded. On the 30th July 1943 W4046 was destroyed during high-altitude testing after an aileron failed. The use of incorrect grease had caused one aileron to remain in a fixed position, causing the aircraft to lose control. The test pilot at the time, Squadron Leader Douglas Davie bailed out successfully.
Flight testing of the remaining prototype continued following the accident with a more powerful W2.500 engine being fitted. A maximum height of 42,000ft was achieved but fuel tanks would not allow any high speed runs to be attempted.
Though testing of the E28 continued until 1944, the aircraft was well outclassed by the jets of the time, particularly Gloster’s Meteor which had flown the previous year. While the E28 was unable to achieve particularly high speeds it was an important stepping stone in developing jet powered flight.
Without doubt, this little jet laid the way for some of the most iconic aircraft the world ever saw, not least the Gloster Meteor. In a time where classic jets are very much an increasingly rare sight it is important to look back and remember the important work that went into those early flights and designs.
Following the loss of W4046, the only remaining E.28 was W4041 and the aircraft still survives to this day. Since 1946 this hugely important airframe has been on display in the science museum. The aircraft now resides in the flight gallery on the top floor of the museum and is displayed in a clean flight configuration offering an excellent view of this rare machine. A number of replicas of the jet have also been made.