Whitcomb, Richard Travis
"Aeronautical Engineer"Enshrined 2012 1921 – 2009
Richard Travis Whitcomb was born to Kenneth and Gladys Whitcomb on February 21, 1921, in Evanston, Illinois. As a child, Richard’s family – including sisters Marian and Marjorie and brother Charles – moved to Worcester, Massachusetts.
His father, a mechanical engineer, had been a balloon pilot. His grandfather was an inventor who had known Thomas Edison. So it was no surprise when young Richard took over the family’s basement to build model airplanes. Not one to waste his time on models that would sit on a shelf, Richard instead concentrated exclusively on airplanes that would fly.
These were the ‘Golden Years of Aviation,’ the era of Lindbergh and Earhart, and of great leaps forward in the aviation industry that captivated the youngster.
As a high school student, Richard’s fascination developed into a concentrated interest in aerodynamics, earning him an engineering scholarship to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute – WPI – in Massachusetts. As his graduation approached, the applied research being done at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory at Langley Field, Virginia, attracted Whitcomb’s keen interest.
When this division of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) sent a recruiter to WPI, Whitcomb recalled, “I was just waiting for the guy to hand me the papers.” In 1943, Richard graduated from WPI with highest honors, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering.
Richard found NACA’s Langley facilities an ideal working environment. It was the middle of World War II – a busy time for aeronautical engineers who were constantly challenged to improve our military air superiority.
By the early 1950’s, many of the challenges revolved around experiments to attain sustainable and controllable transonic flight. This was the region between Mach 0-point-75 and one-point-two-five, where jets of the day encountered compressible flow.
Shock waves streaming from the wings and bodies of aircraft caused loss of lift, rising drag, dangerous buffeting and sometimes loss of control and structural failure. Convair’s new sweptwing F-102 Delta Dagger was supposed to be our first supersonic fighter, but flight tests were proving disastrous. No matter what was tried, nothing worked.
Whitcomb, who had already developed a more effective wind tunnel design, had been giving the problem much thought. If the shape of the F-102 fuselage could be pinched, similar to the shape of a Coke bottle, he surmised it would reduce the shock wave drag emanating from where the wing met the fuselage.
Wind tunnel tests proved his theory correct. He had reshaped the airplane with what became known as Whitcomb’s Area Rule. This revolutionary modification increased a warplane’s supersonic speed by 25 percent without increasing engine power. In 1954, barely over age 30, the Area Rule earned Whitcomb the prestigious Collier Trophy, and the Exceptional Service Medal from the Air Force.
In the late 1960s Richard came up with the second of his pioneering discoveries – the Supercritical Wing. A wing shape that is flatter on the top and rounder on the bottom, with a downward curve on the trailing edge, delays the onset of drag, increasing the fuel efficiency at transonic speeds.
With this breakthrough, jets could fly 100 miles per hour faster without increasing engine power, thus saving on fuel and flying time. Whitcomb’s Supercritical Wing design was of vital strategic significance to both the military and the commercial airline communities, especially in the oil crises of the 1970s. It earned him the National Medal of Science from President Nixon and the 1974 Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy, among other accolades.
In the late 1970s Whitcomb incredibly came up with yet a third breakthrough in transonic research, the improved design of wingtip “winglets,” upturned fins that reduce drag. The addition of this deceptively simple innovation has become ubiquitous on military and civil jet transports with good reason. Whitcomb’s winglets provide for higher speeds, 6 to 7 percent better fuel efficiency, and thus more range.
In 1980 Whitcomb retired from NASA after 37 years of such pioneering applied research, all of it done at Langley. Most would concur it would take an extraordinary breakthrough to match any one of his remarkable achievements, let alone three.
Any person that has flown in a jet aircraft over the last half a century has directly benefited from Whitcomb’s genius. The man recognized as being the “Leonardo da Vinci of American Aerodynamics” passed away in 2009, at age 88.
The National Aviation Hall of Fame proudly honors a visionary engineer whose breakthroughs were vital to improving flight and advancing the Jet Age – Richard T. Whitcomb.