The Extraordinary Case of Captain Virgilio Leret

Article excerpt

Gerald Howson tells the rule of the Spanish republican who invented a jet engine and died during Franco's coup.

OF ALL THE NEW TECHNOLOGIES THAT have revolutionized human life since the Second World War, none has done so more radically and extensively, across every continent, in every activity and at every social level, than that of jet-powered aviation. As everyone knows, we owe this to two pioneers above several others, Sir Frank Whittle, an officer of the British RAF, and to Hans von Ohain, who was backed by Ernst Heinkel, the German aircraft builder. There were also inventors toiling in similar vineyards in France, Hungary, Italy, Sweden and Norway. To this illustrious register we should now add the name of Captain Virgilio Leret Ruiz of the Spanish pre-Civil-War air force. Born in Pamplona on August 23rd, 1902, he had enlisted in the army in 1917, when only fifteen years old. He had fought in the latter part of the Riff War (1909-25) in Spanish Morocco, first as an infantry officer cadet and then in the air force, and achieved a high reputation and several decorations for leadership and bravery. He then became qualified to fly both military and commercial aircraft and between 1924 and 1929, while still fulfilling his military duties, completed an advanced correspondence course in electrical engineering. In 1929 too, he married Cadota O'Neill, of Spanish birth but whose father was a Mexican of Irish descent. By her, he had two daughters.

During this period he became friends with Major Ramon Franco, General Francisco Franco's younger brother, who then held leftwing ideas and had gained world fame by making the first air crossing of the South Atlantic in 1926. When Major Franco persuaded his fellow of officers to assist in a coup against the monarchy in 1930, Captain Leret joined them. The coup failed and Franco escaped abroad, but Leret and many of his colleagues were shut up in prison until the creation of the Republic in April 1931. Leret was not one, it seems, to suffer fools gladly, for, despite his exemplary service, in January 1935 he was back in gaol, this time in the Castillo de Hacho fortress in Ceuta, Spanish Morocco, for having made a remark betraying his republican sympathies in the presence of a superior officer. On March 28th, 1935, out of gaol again, he applied for a patent for what he called a 'Motaturbocompresor de reaccion continua', or, as we should now say, a jet engine. It was intended to power aircraft and many other types of vehicle. The Patent was granted on July 2nd, 1935, and it is interesting to see that the beautifully drafted engineering drawings that accompanied the patent document were made by Leret himself while he was a prisoner in the castle.

In his preamble, he declared that humanity urgently needed a web of electrically (we should say electronically) transmitted communication that embraced the whole world in order to make information instantly and universally available and, in addition, an accompanying network of rapid air transport. Together, they would transform not only the physical but the spiritual life of humankind. Petrol-fuelled piston engines driving propellers could never provide sufficient power, however. Even in the 1930s they were already too heavy, barely able to generate 500-700 hp. For each additional kilogram of engine weight they gained only one more horsepower. This meant that at high altitudes, their performance was abysmal. Turbines, a source of motive power since the days of windmills and watermills, might provide the answer if suitably adapted. He therefore posited a gas turbine with a compressor at the front, which forced a part of the air centrifugally through three layers of explosion chambers. The remaining and larger part of the air flowed through an annular bypass duct between the core of the engine and its nacelle. The tremendous resulting energy would thrust the aeroplane forward at a speed not achievable by propeller-driven aircraft, while the turbine and compressor, united by a shaft as a single moving piece, would continue spinning just so long as the heated compressed air was ignited by the burning fuel. …