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Winged Victory

By Ray Bert '93

Meet Richard Whitcomb '43, the man who fought the enemy drag and won. Through intuition and endless hours in the transonic wind tunnel at Langley Research Center, Whitcomb developed a host of groundbreaking discoveries in aeronautics, including one that made supersonic flight practical.

It's a hot summer day, and Richard Whitcomb '43 has nearly finished a lengthy recitation of the highlights of his illustrious 40-year career as an aeronautical scientist. It's then that the man who helped usher in the era of supersonic flight drops a bombshell: "For about the last 10 years," he says, "when people have asked me what they should get into, I've told them not to go into aeronautics if they want to have an impact. It's mature now. I've been gone 20 years, and nothing new has come up. If I were to start today, I'd go into the life sciences--that's where the big stuff is happening."

As the 81-year-old Whitcomb utters this seeming heresy, his voice goes gravelly with emphasis, and you can feel his excitement over the boundaries now being pushed in another field. But you also sense that he's done enough boundary pushing of his own. There's no tone of regret, no wistfulness for bygone days, no longing to start all over again. He's satisfied with what he's accomplished, and comfortable with what he's working on now, which, if you're curious, boils down to one thing: "Staying alive." Whitcomb, a pioneer of modern flight design, is just keeping the nose up, as it were.

Merely staying alive is a long way from the lofty ambitions of Whitcomb's early career. The desire to have an impact on the world is what drove him, and it is still difficult for him to understand those who lack that same ambition. "Most people in this world don't give a damn about making any contribution," he says. "They just want to do their assigned jobs and be promoted to the highest level they can."

Of course, not everyone has the gifts that Whitcomb possesses, including a creative mind that works best when it is working intuitively. "I visualize in my mind what the air is doing," he says. Rather than beginning with equations or with computer models, he guided his wind tunnel experiments by intuition--mathematics served to prove what he had seen, both in his mind's eye and in the tunnel, rather than suggest what he should do.

At the blackboard in the 1950s, Whitcomb sketches out the principle behind his Transonic Area Rule, which cut drag by reducing variations in a plane's total cross-sectional area.

Whitcomb's other gift, just as instrumental to his success, is his tremendous drive, which gave him the desire to find solutions and the will to work hour after hour, year after year, to make them reality. His motto, which he's fond of repeating, is "There must be a better way to do this!"

That instinct showed up early. Born in Evanston, Ill., in 1921, Whitcomb spent his teen years in Worcester after the family moved there. Not surprisingly, his main hobby then was aeronautics. The young Whitcomb was an inveterate builder and flyer of rubber-band-powered model airplanes, driven to make them better to win competitions. But the hobby was more than child's play as he learned much about the physics of flight and waged his first battles against his lifelong nemesis: aerodynamic drag. "Once the rubber band had done its work, the propeller was just a draggy hindrance," he says, so he developed a way for the propeller blades to fold out of the way. "Of course, the advantage only lasted about a month, because everyone followed my lead," he adds with a smile.

Whitcomb received a scholarship to attend WPI, and with the school so close and money tight, he commuted. He confesses to being "not really a joiner." He spent a lot of his time on campus in the school's wind tunnel. This was, of course, the pre-Plan WPI, and though Whitcomb did well--he graduated with high distinction--he admits to occasional chafing at the structured environment. "One time in the machine design course I tried to do something original and got a D for it," he says, still a little indignant.

But even the World War II-era WPI offered him opportunities to flex his creative muscles. Trying to come up with ideas that would help win the war, Whitcomb, for his senior project, worked on developing a controlled bomb--a huge innovation at a time when bombs were still dropped with no guidance. Shortly after graduation, he landed a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics' (NACA) Langley Research Center (which became part of the newly created NASA in 1958). His first assignment: a controlled bomb that had progressed to the testing stage. "So I got scooped," he says. "But at least I was working on the right thing--and I was just a college kid!"

Whitcomb arrived at the Langley Research Center at a perfect time for someone with his skills and a desire to "have an impact." NACA was ramping up its work in support of the war effort. "I was given an ideal opportunity," he says. "I was assigned to a subsonic wind tunnel, which very shortly after I got there was converted to a transonic tunnel. So there I was, with my tool and my ideas. I lucked into the whole thing! I was the right man at the right time."

It was the right time because by the late 1940s and early 1950s, the sound barrier had become a major impediment to the advancement of high-speed flight. At speeds approaching that of sound, shock waves form on the upper surface of a wing, leading to steep increases in drag, and the resulting turbulence caused many plane crashes even as designers tried to overcome the problem. Though Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, he did so in a vehicle that was more rocket than plane. Practical supersonic flight--and efficient near-sonic flight--remained elusive.

The Area Rule changed all that. As with all of his major discoveries (see page 16), Whitcomb conceived of the Transonic Area Rule based on high-speed aerodynamic principles learned in lectures and courses at Langley, and from the results of his air-flow studies. The rule greatly decreased the drag penalties associated with flight at speeds above 500 mph. Later, Whitcomb's design for a "supercritical" wing advanced the state of the art even further, and his winglets--though slow to be adopted by a somewhat intransigent airline industry--greatly improved aerodynamic efficiency. Whitcomb's first great discovery reverberated through the industry. His later innovations did likewise, cementing his reputation. And behind all of them was Whitcomb's intuitive mind.

The effect of the Area Rule can be seen in the pinched-waist fuselages of many jet aircraft, including the Republic F-105 Thunderchief. This fighter-bomber entered service in 1958 and saw extensive action in Vietnam.

Like many creative people, he has difficulty explaining his thought process in detail. Some have suggested that Whitcomb is something of an artist--in part because he can "see" something that is not really visible to the naked eye. Whitcomb dismisses that notion. "It's not artistic, although I like to make things look right," he says. "It's intuitive. I didn't run a lot of tests to arrive at an idea. And I didn't run a lot of mathematical calculations. I'd just sit there and think about what the air was doing, based on flow studies in the wind tunnel."

Whitcomb didn't just outthink most of his peers; he outworked them. Many iterations of his wind tunnel test models were achieved painstakingly by his own hand, using files and other sculpting tools to make the airfoils match his vision, and he kept a cot at the lab to accommodate his frequent double shifts. "The way I do things, I had to be there after I got a set of results to decide what I'd do next. I couldn't just come in the next morning," he says, because he couldn't bear for the tunnel to be idle.

His dedication to his work always came first. Though Whitcomb says he dated quite a bit when he was younger, he never married. "One thing I learned: women demand attention. And when that happened I'd leave, because the most important thing in my life was doing research. I love women, but not

as much as I loved working at the lab." Whitcomb did, however, have a companion later in life. Barbara Durling, a NASA mathematician and his girlfriend of 25 years, died just last year. They had hit it off in part because she was similarly dedicated to her work, and because they shared an interest in the arts, which included serving on the board of a local theatre.

Toward the end of his career, Whitcomb was asked who was going to take his place. He replied that everyone he trained eventually left for the better paychecks that industry offered. "You can't keep them when they're good," he says.

Except for Whitcomb, of course. He made it clear to his boss--Larry Loftin, chief of aerodynamic research at the lab--what kept him there. "Every time I'd get another job offer," Whitcomb says, relishing the memory, "I'd go to him and say, 'Can I still do anything I want?' And he'd say, 'Yes,' and I'd turn down the offer. You couldn't do that in industry."

By 1980, Whitcomb was still allowed to do whatever he wanted, but his superiors began to dictate what work would be done in the tunnel. The next logical research step was to reduce drag by inducing laminar flow in airfoil boundary layers. But he dismissed as "totally impractical" the way another researcher was trying to go about it--for example, using razor-thin trailing edges that were extremely difficult to produce and maintain in a laboratory, let alone on the manufacturing floor.

"The powers that be decided to run his test on my tunnel," he says, then catches himself. "Well, not my tunnel, but that's what everyone called it, 'Whitcomb's tunnel.' I said, 'OK, but as soon as you put it in, I'm gone.'" And just like that, he retired at the age of 59.

Though the disagreement figured prominently in his decision to quit, as did his near-fanatical pursuit on his own time of a radical new way to produce energy based on quantum theory, Whitcomb allows that there was also a more fundamental--and more practical--reason for leaving Langley: "I couldn't think of anything else to do in aeronautics!"

Whitcomb is, above all, a man dedicated to practicality. He disdains ideas that stand no chance of actually being implemented. "I had no interest whatsoever in working on a technical problem if it wasn't going to be applied," he says. "The supersonic transport is a prime example of that."

In the early 1960s, there was a tremendous push to revolutionize air travel by going supersonic. But after working on the problem for two years, Whitcomb abandoned the effort to others when industry estimates showed that the costs were going to be much higher than for subsonic travel. "Someone asked me, 'Are you against progress?'" Whitcomb says. "This is not progress" was his reply.

For Whitcomb, whose work has won him numerous honors, including the Collier Trophy, aviation's highest award, and an honorary doctorate from WPI, being practical meant getting out of aeronautics when he ran out of new ideas. And where once he took pride in outworking his colleagues, today he is content--and determined--to outlive others. "People around me are dying all over the place--my girlfriend, my brother, a whole slew of friends. But not me." Trim and still vigorous and animated, Whitcomb walks three miles every other day and watches his diet carefully.

He reads voraciously--more than a dozen magazines, all on technical subjects. He also enjoys books on history, in particular those on Lewis and Clark, whom he describes as heroes of his. "But not aeronautics!" he says emphatically, though he does keep up with the goings-on at his old lab.

"The guys at Langley now are trying desperately to come up with something new, and they can't. Because I put enough effort into my ideas to know that they are going to be hard to improve upon," Whitcomb says, and immediately breaks into a wide grin at his own audacity. "Now that is arrogance of the first order, and I'm not saying that nobody is ever going to do anything good, but for certain things [like the supercritical airfoil], it's true."

It's that stagnation that makes genetics more interesting to him than aeronautics these days. In the recent explosion of biotechnology, he is reminded of the heyday of aeronautics during the last century.

"Man is going to change man," he says. "Maybe not for another hundred years, but instead of letting nature define man, man is going to define himself."

Asked where he stands on the ethical implications of genetics work, Whitcomb, an agnostic, explains: "I totally agree that we should not try to clone a human being, because we don't know enough about it yet. What we need right now more than anything else in this world is birth control! Man must try to control himself, and controlling the population is the first step."

Yet Whitcomb feels that over many years, people will gradually come to accept "that we should play around with the whole genetic nature of human beings."

Perhaps when we understand our genetic coding better, we may be able to determine what makes a mind like Whitcomb's tick.

Hanging on the wall of Whitcomb's modest apartment in Hampton, Va., is a picture that he calls "the most important photograph that's ever been taken": a shot of the Earth taken from the Moon. "Right after that we started worrying about the environment," he explains, "because we could see that we live on an island in the middle of empty space."

Whitcomb's environmentalist bent shows up in various ways. During the latter part of his career he worked (unsuccessfully, it turned out) to develop an alternative source of energy. Environmentalism also informed his current choice of automobile. "They keep finding oil, but the production curve is on the downslope now--it's going to disappear," he says. "But people still want to buy their SUVs and get 12 miles to the gallon. So I did my little bit for fuel consumption:

I bought myself a Honda Insight" [one of the gas/electric hybrids that has entered the market over the last few years]. Whitcomb says he loves the gas mileage, but he ticks off a laundry list of ride, noise and design problems. "All the good engineers worked on the hybrid engine, not on the rest of the car," he says with a laugh.

Beyond his stacks of magazines, the other obvious feature of Whitcomb's apartment is the collection of artwork, furniture and lamps with flowing, curving shapes. "It's just what catches my eye," he says. Even a relatively simple seashore painting features reeds bent by the ocean breeze, becoming gracefully arcing shapes stretching across the canvas.

On entering the apartment, you're likely to be greeted by the sound of classical music. Though he has a good collection of compact discs, Whitcomb generally prefers to tune to a radio station that plays nothing but classical. "I don't like Bach or Haydn," he says. "It's only when you get up to the period with Mozart and Beethoven that I like it. Take Haydn, for example... it's too jerky! Mozart is less so. And finally with Beethoven, it's all smoothed out."

You suspect that soon after you leave, the music will be back on, and the sound of Beethoven--or something else smooth, laminar--will fill the apartment. And as always, Whitcomb will have done his best to eliminate turbulence.

Ray Bert, a free-lance writer in Alexandria, Va., writes regularly for Transformations.

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Last modified: Sep 15, 2004, 12:29 EDT
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