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Aerodynamicist Wins National Recognition
December 19, 2011

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Aeronautics engineer Richard T. Whitcomb, whose legendary NASA research contributions made supersonic flight practical, will officially join other aerospace pioneers in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012.

The National Aviation Hall of Fame will honor Whitcomb, who died in 2009 at age 88, and three others in ceremonies at the Dayton Convention Center in Dayton, Ohio. Also included are well-known 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.

The National Aviation Hall of Fame, located at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, is dedicated to honoring individuals who have uniquely contributed to America's rich legacy of aviation achievement. Over the last 50 years it has inducted more than 200 of the nation's premier air and space pioneer, including the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and astronauts John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and others.

Richard Whitcomb may not be as much of a household name as others, but aerospace professionals say his role in aeronautics research is virtually unmatched.

"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.

Those three contributions include the "area rule," supercritical wing and winglets.

Whitcomb spent his 37-year career at what is now NASA Langley -- arriving right after college in 1943. Nine years later in 1952, the young 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 is shaped more like an old-fashioned soda bottle, he could reduce drag and increase the speed of a transonic aircraft without the need to add additional power. The area rule has been applied to almost every U.S. supersonic aircraft designed. The achievement earned him the prestigious 1954 Collier Trophy for the most important aeronautical advance of the year.

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 aircraft currently sport wingtips that are angled up for better fuel performance.

In addition to his induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the Collier Trophy, Whitcomb was presented the National Medal of Science by President Richard Nixon in 1973 and received the U.S. Air Force ExceptionalService medal in 1955, the first NACA 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. The engineer was also inducted into 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. Whitcomb's alma mater, Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, also awarded him an honorary doctorate and its presidential medal.

Kathy Barnstorff
NASA Langley Research Center

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Whitcomb's National Aviation Hall of Fame poster.
Whitcomb's National Aviation Hall of Fame poster.
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National Aviation Hall of Fame
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Whitcomb official portrait, from 1969.
Whitcomb official portrait, from 1969.
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NASA
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Dick Whitcomb in 2002 at NASA Langley Research Center.
Dick Whitcomb in 2002 at NASA Langley Research Center.
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WPI
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