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Going With The Flow

Richard Whitcomb

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 12/30/2009

If you've never heard of "the area rule" or admired the counter-intuitive lines of the F-106 Delta Dart fighter jet, that's OK. You still have Richard Whitcomb to thank for your ability to fly from New York to Miami for under $250, round-trip.

Whitcomb was an aeronautical engineer who worked most of his career at NASA and its predecessor, NACA. The area rule is a complex formula for figuring aircraft fuselages into the pointy-tipped paper-airplane shape we now take for granted. Whitcomb came up with the rule while trying to figure out why airplanes that should have been able to fly faster than the speed of sound couldn't do so. The shape solved the problem of wave drag, the tendency of air, at near the speed of sound, to form itself into invisible "pipes" because it can't get out of a plane's way fast enough. When Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, he needed brute force in a rocket-powered experimental plane. By the late 1950s, engineers were designing passenger airliners that could fly as fast, mainly because of Whitcomb's design innovations. In the 1960s, Whitcomb also designed a new wing shape, called the "supercritical airfoil," and in the 1970s, he came up with "winglets," those vertical sails on the ends of airliners' wings, which save fuel by reducing turbulence.

Growing up in Evanston, Ill., Whitcomb was fascinated by aircraft and by the prospect of improving them. His first invention was a method of doubling the power available from the rubber bands that powered his model planes. "There's been a continual drive in me ever since I was a teenager to find a better way to do everything," he told The Washington Post in 1969. After studying at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he went to work in 1943 at Langley Air Force Base, where he became a workaholic, sometimes sleeping on a cot in front of a special wind tunnel. A prototypical nerd, he was said to shower rarely, and he never married. He died Oct. 13 at age 88.

"I think he was the most significant aeronautical engineer operating in the second half of 20th century," Tom Crouch, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, told The Wall Street Journal after his death. "His fingerprints are on every jet plane flying today."

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