Whitcomb—Architect of the Area Rule and the Supercritical Wing

The developments of the area rule (Section 11.8) and the supercritical airfoil (Section 11.9) are two of the most important advancements in aerodynamics since 1950. That both developments were made by the same man—Richard T. Whitcomb—is remark­able. Who is this man? What qualities lead to such accomplishments? Let us pursue these matters further.

Richard Whitcomb was born on February 21, 1921, in Evanston, Illinois. At an early age, he was influenced by his grandfather, who had known Thomas A. Edison. In an interview with The Washington Post on August 31, 1969, Whitcomb is quoted as saying: “I used to sit around and hear stories about Edison. He sort of developed into my idol.” Whitcomb entered the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1939. (This is the same school from which the rocket pioneer, Robert H. Goddard, had graduated 31 years earlier.) Whitcomb distinguished himself in college and graduated with a mechanical engineering degree with honors in 1943. Informed by a Fortune magazine article on the research facilities at the NACA Langley Memorial Laboratory,

Whitcomb immediately joined the NACA. He became a wind-tunnel engineer, and as an early assignment he worked on design problems associated with the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. He remained with the NACA and later its successor, NASA, until his retirement in 1980—spending his entire career with the wind tunnels at the Langley Research Center. In the process, he rose to become head of the Eight-foot Tunnel Branch at Langley.

Whitcomb conceived the idea of the area rule as early as 1951. He tested his idea in the transonic wind tunnel at Langley. The results were so promising that the aeronautical industry changed designs in midstream. For example, the Convair F – 102 delta-wing fighter had been designed for supersonic flight, but was having major difficulty even exceeding the speed of sound—the increase in drag near Mach 1 was simply too large. The F-102 was redesigned to incorporate Whitcomb’s area rule and afterward was able to achieve its originally intended supersonic Mach number. The area rule was such an important aerodynamic breakthrough that it was classified “secret” from 1952 to 1954, when airplanes incorporating the area rule began to roll off the production line. In 1954, Whitcomb was given the Collier Trophy—an annual award for the “greatest achievement in aviation in America.”

In the early 1960s, Whitcomb turned his attention to airfoil design, with the objective again of decreasing the large drag rise near Mach 1. Using the existing knowledge about airfoil properties, a great deal of wind-tunnel testing, and intuition honed by years of experience, Whitcomb produced the supercritical airfoil. Again, this development had a major impact on the aeronautical industry, and today virtu­ally all new commercial transport and executive aircraft designs are incorporating a supercritical wing. Because of his development of the supercritical airfoil, in 1974 NASA gave Whitcomb a cash award of $25,000—the largest cash award ever given by NASA to a single individual.

There are certain parallels between the personalities of the Wright brothers and Richard Whitcomb: (1) they all had powerful intuitive abilities which they brought to bear on the problem of flight, (2) they were totally dedicated to their work (none of them ever married), and (3) they did a great deal of their work themselves, trusting only their own results. For example, here is a quote from Whitcomb which appears in the same Washington Post interview mentioned above. Concerning the detailed work on the development of the supercritical airfoil, Whitcomb says:

I modified the shape of the wing myself as we tested it. It’s just plain easier this way.

In fact my reputation for filing the wing’s shape has become so notorious that the people at North American have threatened to provide me with a 10-foot file to work on the real airplane, also.

Perhaps the real ingredient for Whitcomb’s success is his personal philosophy, as well as his long hours at work daily. In his own words:

There’s been a continual drive in me ever since I was a teenager to find a better way to do everything. A lot of very intelligent people are willing to adapt, but only to a certain extent. If a human mind can figure out a better way to do something, let’s do it. I can’t just sit around. I have to think.

Students take note!

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