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With the passing of Richard T. Whitcomb '43 on Oct. 13, 2009, WPI lost one of its most distinguished alumni.
In an appreciation on its web site, NASA called Dr. Whitcomb "the most significant aerodynamic contributor of the second half of the 20th century." Mr. Whitcomb spent his entire career at Langley Research Center, retiring in 1980 at the age of 59. He is best known as the developer of the Area Rule, which made supersonic flight practical. It was just one of a number of major contributions to aviation design that won him many awards, from the Collier Trophy – aviation's highest honor, to the National Medal of Science, to induction in the Inventors Hall of Fame.
The Transonic Area Rule, developed by Dr. Whitcomb, greatly reduced drag, making supersonic flight not only possible, but practical. His "supercritical" wing revolutionized jet liner design by decreasing drag and increasing fuel efficiency, and his winglets reduced another type of drag and greatly improved aerodynamic efficiency. These contributions have been vital to the advancement of modern aviation and have earned Mr. Whitcomb the highest awards and honors bestowed in aeronautics and astronautics: 1954 Collier Award, National Medal of Science, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Award, Wright Brothers Award, Daniel Guggenheim Award, Patent Award for the supercritical wing, NACA Distinguished Service Medal, Exceptional Civilian Service Medal from the U.S. Air Force, and Exceptional Scientific Service Medal from NASA. He also received two awards from WPI: 2003 WPI Presidential Medal marking the 100-year anniversary of flight, and an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree in 1956, a mere 13 years after he earned his undergraduate degree from the university.
As part of his generous bequest to WPI, Dr. Whitcomb left his impressive lifetime awards – 10 in total – to the university.
The Whitcomb family presented the awards to WPI on Feb. 12, 2010, during a reception that included remarks from family members and WPI staff.
February 16, 2010