WPI Alumnus and Aviation Design Pioneer Inducted Into the First Flight Shrine

Richard T. Whitcomb's Innovations Transformed the Shape of Airplanes and Forever Altered How Aircraft Are Designed
Media Contact
December 13, 2007

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WORCESTER, Mass. -- Richard T. Whitcomb ’43, whose Area Rule made supersonic flight practical and whose other innovations have made it possible for military and commercial aircraft to fly faster and more efficiently, joined other aerospace pioneers when he was inducted into the Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine at the Wright Brothers National Memorial visitor's center in Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17.

According to NASA, the First Flight Society now includes Whitcomb's portrait alongside those of Orville and Wilbur Wright, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and other aviation visionaries. The portrait gallery recognizes men and women who have made the most significant contributions to flight science and technology.

"Dick Whitcomb's intellectual fingerprints are on virtually every commercial aircraft flying today," Tom Crouch, noted aviation historian at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, said in the news release.

Born in Evanston, Ill., in 1921, Whitcomb spent his teen years in Worcester, where his main hobby was aeronautics. He received a scholarship to attend WPI, where he studied mechanical engineering and took advantage of the school's “Aero Option.”

For his senior project, he worked on developing a controlled bomb--a significant innovation at the time. After graduation, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics' (NACA) Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. (which became part of the newly created NASA in 1958). His first assignment was a controlled bomb that had already progressed to the testing stage. "So I got scooped," he told Transformations, WPI’s magazine. "But at least I was working on the right thing--and I was just a college kid!"

In 1951, he set out to learn why airplanes experienced more drag than conventional theory suggested they should when flying at transonic speeds (faster than sound). He conducted a series of tests in the transonic wind tunnel at Langley. While puzzling over the photos from those tests, he made a breakthrough that would fundamentally change the way high-speed aircraft were designed. His discovery led to his formulation of the Area Rule, which 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.

He tested a model with a pinched-waist design and found that it behaved exactly as he predicted; the model is now in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The idea was soon tested for the first time on a real plane: the Convair YF-102, a new 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 area rule has been applied to virtually every supersonic aircraft designed since the 1950s. In 1954, the achievement earned Whitcomb the prestigious Collier Trophy, given annually for the most important aeronautical advance of the year.

Whitcomb also developed the supercritical wing, which has a blunted leading edge, a flattened top, and a trailing edge that curves downward. By delaying the onset of shock waves that appear on the upper portions of wings at high speeds, the design enables military aircraft and commercial jetliners to fly faster and more efficiently. Winglets, another Whitcomb invention, 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. Today, many airliners and private jets sport winglets.

"The First Flight Society is proud to honor Richard Whitcomb, a man who literally changed the shape of the airplane and altered the course of the history of flight in the process," said Bill Harris, president of the First Flight Society.

Whitcomb, who retired from NASA Langley in 1980, has also received the Air Force Exceptional Service Medal, the NACA Distinguished Service Medal , the NASA Scientific Achievement Medal, and the National Medal of Science. He was inducted into the Nationl Inventors Hall of Fame in 2003. WPI bestowed an honorary doctorate in engineering upon Whitcomb in 1956. In 2003, it awarded him the WPI Presidential Medal as part of the university’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of powered flight.