An aeronautical engineer who designed wing shapes for supersonic jets after World War II.
Richard Travis Whitcomb was fascinated from his childhood by model airplanes. He pursued his interest in aerodynamics at Worcester Polytechnical Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, from which he received a bachelor of science degree in engineering in 1943. Immediately upon graduation, he joined the aerodynamic research center of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) located in Langley, Virginia. Most of Whitcomb’s professional life was spent at NACA and at its successor organization, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Whitcomb’s first project at NACA concerned the shape of the wings and fuselage attached to jets that were being built to fly at speeds greater than the speed of sound. Performing a series of increasingly complex experiments in specially constructed wind tunnels, Whitcomb and his team determined that the optimal shape of the fuselage for the Convair F-102, a potentially supersonic jet, should be like a Coca-Cola bottle, that is, slightly wider at both ends and narrower in the middle section. The Coca-Cola bottle-shaped fuselage would allow jets to fly faster while at the same time increasing stability while in flight. The general rule of aerodynamics that resulted from this discovery is known as Whitcomb’s area rule.
On December 21, 1954, an experimental Convair YF-102A utilizing Whitcomb’s Coca-Cola-bottle-shaped fuselage design broke the sound barrier near Edwards Air Force Base, California. That same year, Whitcomb was awarded the prestigious Collier Trophy, an award given annually for the year’s greatest achievement in American aviation, for his wind-tunnel experiments and fuselage designs.
After NACA was reorganized as NASA, Whitcomb joined NASA to continue his experiments on designs for supersonic jets. He is well known in aviation history for his design of the supercritical wing, a wing that is flat on the top and thicker at the front than the back, with a slight downward curve. In 1973, this wing type was tested on a Ling Temco Vought F-8A Crusader supersonic fighter. It resulted in higher jet speeds and a slower rate of fuel consumption, thus increasing the potential range of the supersonic fighter.
For his design and construction of the supercritical wing, Whitcomb was awarded a cash prize of $25,000 in May, 1974. During his long career with NACA and NASA, Whitcomb received numerous other awards, including the Distinguished Service Medal from NACA, the NASA Medal for Exceptional Service, and the Exceptional Service Medal from the United States Air Force, the highest award that can be awarded to a civilian.
Bryan, C. D. B. The National Air and Space Museum. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979. The official guidebook to the National Air and Space Museum. It offers background information on all the items on display in the museum. Pyle, Mark, ed. Chronicle of Aviation. Liberty, Mo.: JL International, 1992. A chronological record of developments in aviation based on newspaper clippings, press releases, and short articles.
Aerospace industry, U.S.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics
World War II
Richard Whitcomb pioneered the design of supersonic aircraft.