Richard Whitcomb, Revolutionary Aircraft Designer, Dead At 88

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Engineer Richard Whitcomb, whose innovative ideas are incorporated in the design of most aircraft flying today, died in Newport News, Va., on Oct. 13. Whitcomb "was the most important aerodynamic contributor in the second half of the century of flight," according to historian Tom Crouch, of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. Whitcomb won the Collier Trophy in 1954 for his development of the "transonic area rule," which reduces the shock wave drag that occurs near the speed of sound. "We built airplane models with Coke-bottle-shaped fuselages and lo and behold the drag of the wing just disappeared," said Whitcomb. "The wind tunnel showed it worked perfectly." In the 1960s, Whitcomb's supercritical wing design was revolutionary, according to NASA. The airfoil design was flatter on the top and rounder on the bottom with a downward curve on the trailing edge. That shape delayed the onset of drag, increasing the fuel efficiency of aircraft flying close to the speed of sound.

In the 1970s, Whitcomb developed his third significant innovation -- winglets. Other engineers had suspected that end plates added to the wingtips could reduce drag. But Whitcomb showed that the structure would work best if it was an airfoil. Winglets are found on a wide range of aircraft today and improve fuel efficiency. Whitcomb worked at the NASA Langley Research Center, in Virginia, from 1943 until he retired in 1980. "Dick Whitcomb's three biggest innovations have been judged to be some 30 percent of the most significant innovations produced by NASA Langley through its entire history," said Langley chief scientist Dennis Bushnell. "That's from its founding in 1917 to the present. He is without the doubt the most distinguished alumnus of the Langley Research Center."