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Famed Aerodynamicist Richard Whitcomb Dies

Contributions vastly improved efficiency of airframes near speed of sound

Richard Whitcomb looks over a model that incorporates his supercritical wing concept. Credit: NASA

Whitcomb examines a model designed in accordance with his transonic area rule in April 1954. Credit: NASA

October 30, 2009 — Aviation pioneer Richard Whitcomb died in Newport News, Virginia, on October 13 at the age of 88. The NASA Langley Research Center engineer has been called the most significant aerodynamic contributor of the second half of the 20th century. "Dick Whitcomb's intellectual fingerprints are on virtually every commercial aircraft flying today," said Tom Crouch, noted aviation historian at the Smithsonian Institution in a press release from NASA. "It's fair to say he was the most important aerodynamic contributor in the second half of the century of flight."

Whitcomb was responsible for three significant aerodynamic innovations that have shaped aeronautical design since the 1950s. The Whitcomb area rule showed that fuselage shape could affect how an aircraft behaved near the speed of sound. His supercritical wing revolutionized the design of jet liners after the 1960s by reducing drag near the speed of sound and increasing fuel efficiency. Whitcomb’s final revolution was the creation of the winglet which further reduced drag and improved fuel efficiency. Enhancing the accepted theory that endplates on wings would improve performance, Whitcomb argued that the endplates needed the same rigorous design process that a wing undergoes. Today winglets are seen on every category of aircraft from homebuilts to the Airbus A380.

In the 1970's Burt Rutan picked up on some theoretical work that Whitcomb completed on winglets and applied the theory to his new Vari-Eze. (the protoype of which is displayed in the EAA Museum) This was the first airplane in the world to have winglets. Even today, 25 years later, the Vari-Eze is a formidable design; it just won the FuelVenture contest at Copperstate.

For a detailed biography of Whitcomb’s work visit NASA’s website which includes a video highlighting his life’s achievements.

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