In Memoriam: Richard T. Whitcomb '43, Aviation Pioneer

With the Area Rule, the supercritical wing, and winglets, NASA engineer Whitcomb helped shape the face of modern aviation.

Invented the Area Rule of High-Speed Aircraft Design, the Supercritical Wing, and Winglets

WPI mourns the passing of one its most storied graduates, Richard T. Whitcomb '43, who died Tuesday, Oct. 13, at the age of 89 in Newport News, Va.

In an appreciation on its website, NASA called Whitcomb “the most significant aerodynamic contributor of the second half of the 20th century." 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 a slew of awards, from the Collier Trophy, aviation's highest honor, to the National Medal of Science, to induction in the Inventors Hall of Fame.

WPI honored Whitcomb with its Presidential Medal and an honorary doctorate in engineering.

Born in Evanston, Ill., he spent his teen years in Worcester and earned a BS in mechanical engineering at WPI, where, as a student, he developed a concept for a guided bomb. He landed a job at the Langley Research Center, run by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which became NASA in 1958. He would spend his entire career there.

He became known for his intuitive sense of air flow and aeronautics. "I didn't run a lot of mathematical calculations," he told WPI's alumni magazine, Transformations in 2002. "I'd just sit there and think about what the air was doing, based on flow studies in the wind tunnel."

When Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in October 1947, he did it in a rocket plane that reached supersonic flight through sheer muscle. Jet planes were finding the barrier nearly impassible due to extreme turbulence caused by shock waves that formed at the edges of their wings near the onset of supersonic flight. Whitcomb studied the problem in a wind tunnel and developed an ingenious solution, one that remains a fundamental tenet of supersonic aircraft design.

Called the Area Rule, it says that drag at high speeds is a function of an airplane's total cross-sectional area (essentially, the thickness of the fuselage). Because projections from the fuselage increase a plane's cross section, narrowing the fuselage where the wings and tail assembly attach reduces drag.

The idea was first tested on the Convair YF-102, a delta-winged jet fighter that had not performed well at transonic speeds. The plane was lengthened and given the now-famous "Coke-bottle" fuselage; in the words of a test pilot, the redesigned plane "slipped right past the sound barrier and kept on going." (The wind-tunnel model Whitcomb used to develop the Area Rule is now in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.)

Two of Whitcomb's later innovations have produced huge cost savings in military and commercial aviation. The supercritical wing, which has a blunted leading edge, a flattened top, and a trailing edge that curves downward, enables military aircraft and commercial jetliners to fly faster and more efficiently. Winglets are airfoils that extend at an angle from the ends of wings. By reducing wingtip vortices that can cause drag and decrease lift, they produce greater fuel efficiency.

Whitcomb's ashes will be spread by plane over the Chesapeake Bay.

Read more about Richard Whitcomb:


October 14, 2009

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