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Richard Whitcomb in front of a diagram illustrating the area rule as applied to a delta wing aircraft.

Richard T. Whitcomb (February 21, 1921–October 13, 2009), was a American aeronautical engineer noted for his significant contributions to the science of aerodynamics.

Whitcomb was born in Evanston, Illinois but grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts and earned his bachelors degree at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He spent most of his career at the Langley Research Center operated by National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and its successor, NASA.

Career

In the 1950s, Whitcomb proposed the 'Area Rule'. The Area Rule states that two bodies having the same cross-sectional area distribution will have the same wave drag, as measured in the far field. As the axi-symmetric body with the minimum wave drag in transonic flow was shown to be the Sears-Haack body, this provided an optimal distribution to compare designs with. The impact of this concept on aircraft design was immediate. The prototype Convair YF-102 was found to not be capable of exceeding the speed of sound in level flight. By sculpting the fuselage, to reduce the fuselage cross-sectional area in the region of the wing, the aircraft's area distribution was made closer to optimum. The resulting aircraft was found to be capable of exceeding the speed of sound in level flight. For this discovery, Whitcomb won the Collier Trophy in 1954.

In the 1960s, Whitcomb developed the supercritical airfoil, and in the 1970s, Whitcomb developed winglets, devices used at the wingtips, normal to the wingspar, extending both upward and downward, which reduce wingtip vortices and the induced drag such vortices create, improving the aerodynamic efficiency of the wing and seen frequently in modern airliners, in which they reduce fuel consumption, and in sailplanes in which they improve glide ratio.

Whitcomb received the following awards. USAF Exceptional Service Medal 1955, NACA Distinguished Service Medal 1956, NASA Exceptional Scientific Service Medal 1959, National Medal of Science in 1973, NAA Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy 1974, National Academy of Engineering 1976, National Inventors Hall of Fame 2003.

Whitcomb died in Newport News, Virginia

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