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Whitcomb in 8-foot-high wind tunnel

In the 8-foot High-Speed Tunnel in April 1955, Richard Whitcomb examines a model designed in accordance with his transonic area rule.

Richard Whitcomb

Richard T. Whitcomb was born in Evanston, Illinois. He attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute, graduating with high distinction in 1943 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering. He went to work at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics' (NACA) Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory and was associated with its Transonic Aerodynamics Branch from 1943 to 1980, when he retired. He was appointed head of the branch in 1958 and throughout his career supervised the development of ways to improve aerodynamic performance of aircraft. He wrote more than 30 technical papers on transonic aerodynamics and taught in the graduate program at Langley. After his retirement from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), he continued to be active in education, at one time teaching high school students how to build 30-foot flying paper airplanes.

In 1952, Whitcomb discovered and experimentally verified a revolutionary aircraft design concept called the area rule. This was a method of designing aircraft to reduce drag and increase speed without additional power. It has been incorporated into almost every American supersonic aircraft. He also invented the supercritical wing. Furthermore, he invented and developed the application of winglets to transport airplanes and other vehicles to increase their lift-to-drag ratio.

Whitcomb is an internationally known aerodynamicist, receiving numerous awards. He received the Collier Trophy in 1954 for the year's greatest achievement in aviation in the United States--a "powerful, simple, and useful method of reducing greatly the sharp increase in wing drag heretofore associated with transonic flight, and which constituted a major factor requiring great reserves of power to attain supersonic speeds"; the Exceptional Service Medal of the Air Force in 1955; and the first Distinguished Service Medal to be presented by the NACA in 1956. He received the NASA Scientific Achievement Medal in 1959, and in 1974 he received a $25,000 cash award for the invention of the supercritical wing.

He retired from NASA in 1980.