Richard T. Whitcomb examines a model designed in accordance with his transonic area rule in the 8-ft High-Speed Tunnel. Credit: NASA
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More than 300 people braved the brisk December coastal North Carolina weather to commemorate the 104th anniversary of the first powered flight and to honor the achievements of NASA aviation pioneer Richard T. Whitcomb.
The same kind of winds that lifted the Wright Brothers Flyer into the air in 1903 greeted visitors to the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk/Kill Devil Hills, N.C. The gusty conditions seemed somehow appropriate since the man many came to celebrate spent most of his working life doing research in wind tunnels about 100 miles north of Kitty Hawk at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
Whitcomb joins other aerospace pioneers in the Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine, a portrait gallery that recognizes men and women who have made the most significant contributions to flight science and technology. The First Flight Society established the shrine in 1966 in the visitor center at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Likenesses there include Orville and Wilbur Wright, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and others.
Richard Whitcomb may not be as much of a household name as some in the gallery, but aviation historians say his role in aeronautics research is virtually unmatched. "Dick Whitcomb's intellectual fingerprints are on virtually every commercial aircraft flying today," said Tom Crouch, noted aviation historian at the Smithsonian Institution.
Relatively early in his career, in 1952, the aeronautics engineer discovered and experimentally verified a revolutionary aircraft design principle that became known as the area rule. Whitcomb discovered if he narrowed the fuselage of an airplane so it's shaped more like an old-fashioned soda bottle, he could reduce drag and increase the speed of a transonic aircraft without adding additional power. The area rule has been applied to almost every U.S. supersonic aircraft designed since then. The achievement earned him the prestigious 1954 Collier Trophy for the most important aeronautical advance of the year.
A portrait of NASA aviation pioneer Richard Whitcomb, unveiled during ceremonies celebrating the first powered flight, will hang in the First Flight Shrine at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
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If the area rule was Whitcomb's major accomplishment of the 1950s, his supercritical wing revolutionized the design of jet liners in the 1960s. The key was the development of a swept-back wing airfoil that delayed the onset of increased drag, increasing the fuel efficiency of aircraft flying close to the speed of sound.
In the 1970s Whitcomb came up with winglets, wingtip devices that reduce yet another type of drag and further improve aerodynamic efficiency. Many airliners and private jets sport wingtips that are angled up for better fuel performance.
"He, like the Wright Brothers, possessed the most important characteristic of a successful inventor… perseverance and tenacity, " said Dennis Bushnell, senior scientists at NASA Langley who worked with Whitcomb. "He invested a decade of his life on each of his major contributions."
At 86 and in fading health, Whitcomb was unable to make it to the ceremony. But his brother, Bruce, drove from Frederick, Md., and his nephew, David, and his wife and two children arrived from Fairfax, Va., for the day. Also in the crowd were a number of NASA Langley retirees and NASA Langley employees who work today to carry on Whitcomb's legacy of aerodynamic innovation.