Richard Whitcomb, 88, Dies; Engineer Changed the Way We Fly

In a high-speed NASA tunnel, Richard Whitcomb examines a model of a jet that demonstrates some of his engineering innovations.
In a high-speed NASA tunnel, Richard Whitcomb examines a model of a jet that demonstrates some of his engineering innovations. (Courtesy Of Nasa Langley)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009

Mechanical engineer Richard Whitcomb, 88, who died of pneumonia Oct. 13 in Newport News, Va., changed the way we fly today with three design innovations that made airplanes fly farther and faster using less fuel.

His contributions, for which he won the most prestigious prize in aviation, focused on a plane's efficiency cutting through air at speeds approaching the sound barrier, or the "transonic region." As airplanes approach the speed of sound, they encounter a significant increase in "drag," or force that resists the plane's forward movement through the air.

Mr. Whitcomb made improvements to wings, and how they attach to the fuselage to lessen the amount of drag on the airplane.

"His intellectual fingerprints are evident on virtually every commercial aircraft flying today," said Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum. Crouch called Mr. Whitcomb one of the most important aeronautical engineers since the end of World War II.

As a young and obscure engineer in 1951 with a NASA predecessor, the Hampton-based National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, Mr. Whitcomb made a discovery so simple yet so radical that it forever changed jet design.

Until Mr. Whitcomb's improvement, the bodies of most jet airplanes were cigar shaped to be sleek, as with Chuck Yeager's squat, orange Bell X-1 experimental craft. The X-1 easily broke the sound barrier, but it was impractical for tactical use -- it was a hot rod built for one purpose. The Air Force wanted fighter planes that could maneuver supersonically with ease and greater capability.

Mr. Whitcomb developed a body design that allowed jet planes to travel faster than ever using the same engine and same amount of fuel: the "Coke-bottle" shape, otherwise known as a "wasp waist."

To make up for the drag the surface area of the wings created, the answer was simple: Cut it out. By pinching the fuselage at the section where the wings connected, the drag they had created was neutralized. His innovation became known as the "area rule," and at 34 Mr. Whitcomb was awarded the National Aeronautic Association's Collier Trophy for the "greatest achievement in aviation in 1954." Previous recipients included aviation pioneers including Howard Hughes, Chuck Yeager, Glenn H. Curtiss, Glenn L. Martin and Elmer A. Sperry.

Besides the Collier Trophy, Mr. Whitcomb in 1973 received the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for science and engineering. He was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Engineering.

Mr. Whitcomb, who admitted he was not math-minded, used his imagination as a wind tunnel. Colleagues said he could "see air."

"Most people have to see through testing how air moves on a model," said Roy Harris, former aeronautics director at the Hampton facility, who worked with Mr. Whitcomb for decades. "But he had this uncanny ability to accurately sense how air molecules reacted over a surface before he even built the models."

With Mr. Whitcomb's aeronautic improvements, new Air Force fighter jets sailed through the sound barrier and kept going, sometimes adding as much as 100 mph to their top speeds. Mr. Whitcomb also broke through a barrier as a researcher. His innovation earned him unprecedented carte blanche and the freedom to design as he pleased.

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