Aerodynamics Pioneer Whitcomb Honored

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The Whitcomb area rule, the supercritical wing, and winglets changed supersonic flight, modern jetliners and aircraft of all kinds, and are attributed to Richard T. Whitcomb, who will be posthumously inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame Saturday, Oct. 6. Whitcomb died in 2009 at the age of 88 after a 37-year career at NASA's Langley Research Center. Lesa Roe, director of the center, said of Whitcomb, "His practical solutions led to three of the most significant and practical contributions to aeronautics in the 20th century." Whitcomb's application of the area rule earned him the Collier Trophy in 1954 and has been applied to nearly every U.S. supersonic aircraft ever designed, according to NASA. The latest honor adds to a long list bestowed on Whitcomb while he was still alive.

Whitcomb received the Exceptional Service medal from the U.S. Air Force in 1955, the Distinguished Service Medal in 1956 from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and NASA's Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1959. He won the National Aeronautics Association Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in 1974 and was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 1976 and the National Inventors' Hall of Fame in 2003. The area rule was made famous by the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger's pinched fuselage and greatly reduced transonic drag on nearly every supersonic U.S. aircraft designed since.  It had been previously considered by German researchers as early as 1943. Whitcomb's supercritical wing delayed the onset of increased drag at near-supersonic speeds and was first applied to airliners in the 1960s. And the winglet further improved aerodynamic efficiencies on a wide range of aircraft from gliders to heavy jets.