The National Aviation Hall of Fame just announced Whitcomb, who died in 2009 at age 88, is among the 2012 honorees. Also included are well-known aviation artist Keith Ferris; Geraldine Cobb – a female aviation pioneer who also trained as an astronaut in the 1960s; 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 first head of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The National Aviation Hall of Fame is dedicated to honoring individuals who have uniquely contributed to America's rich legacy of aviation achievement, according to its website. Since 1962 it has inducted more than 200 of the nation's premier air and space pioneers into the organization, 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 aviation historians say his role in aeronautics research is virtually unmatched. "Dick Whitcomb's intellectual fingerprints are on virtually every commercial aircraft flying today," said Tom Crouch, noted aviation historian at the Smithsonian Institution.
Whitcomb spent his career at what is now NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Born in Evanston, Ill., in 1921, he graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts in 1943. After college he joined the Transonic Aerodynamics Branch of NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Whitcomb retired from the Hampton facility in 1980.
Relatively early in his career, in 1952, the 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's 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 since then. 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 airliners and private jets 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 Exceptional Service 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, also awarded him an honorary doctorate and its presidential medal.
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Kathy Barnstorff, Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va.
Phone: +1-757-344-8511 (mobile)