Aviation Hall Of Fame Inducts NASA Aerodynamics Legend Richard Whitcomb
April Flowers for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
On Saturday, October 6, the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, inducted a new class of “enshrinees.” Among them was Richard T. Whitcomb, a NASA aeronautics engineer whose contributions made supersonic flight practical.
Located at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the National Aviation Hall of Fame is dedicated to honoring those who have made unique contributions to America’s rich legacy of aviation achievements.
According to aerospace professionals who say his achievements are virtually unmatched, Whitcomb, who died in 2009 at the age of 88, certainly belongs amongst that group.
“During his almost four decades of federal service, Whitcomb’s fundamental insight into aerodynamics and his practical solutions led to three of the most significant and practical contributions to aeronautics in the 20th century,” said Lesa Roe, director of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
Whitcomb’s three significant contributions are the area rule, supercritical wing, and winglets.
Whitcomb’s entire career was spent at Langley, arriving fresh out of college in 1943. In 1952, Whitcomb discovered and experimentally verified the area rule, a revolutionary aircraft design principle. If the fuselage of a transonic plane is narrowed so that it is shaped more like an old-fashioned soda bottle, its drag is reduced and speed increased without having to add any more power. The area rule has been applied to nearly every U.S. supersonic aircraft designed since, earning Whitcomb the prestigious Collier Trophy, for the most important aeronautical advance of the year, in 1954.
The Collier Trophy, presented by the National Aeronautic Association, is awarded yearly “for the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America, with respect to improving the performance, efficiency, and safety of air or space vehicles, the value of which has been thoroughly demonstrated by actual use during the preceding year.”
Whitcomb’s second contribution, the supercritical wing, revolutionized the design of jet liners in the 1960′s with a swept-back wing airfoil that delayed the onset of drag. This increased the fuel efficiency of aircraft flying close to the speed of sound.
In the 1970′s, Whitcomb designed winglets, or wingtip devices that reduced yet another type of drag. This further improved aircraft efficiency and many aircraft today sport wingtips that are angled up for better fuel performance.
Whitcomb was recognized and highly decorated for his achievements. He received the National Medal of Science from Richard Nixon in 1973, the U.S. Air Force Exceptional Service medal in 1955, the first National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NASA’s predecessor) Distinguished Service Medal in 1956, the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1959 and the National Aeronautics Association’s Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in 1974.
Whitcomb has been inducted into other prestigious groups, including the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame in 2003, the National Academy of Engineering in 1976, for his pioneering research in the aerodynamic design of high performance aircraft, and the Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina.
He was awarded an honorary doctorate and the presidential medal from his alma mater, Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
Other National Aviation Hall of Fame inductees this year include aviation artist Keith Ferris, female aviation pioneer Geraldine Cobb, and the late Elwood Quesada, an Air Force general and pilot who in 1929 helped develop and demonstrate air-to-air refueling and was the first commander of the USAF Tactical Air Command and the first head of the Federal Aviation Administration.