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“I Was Sitting There with My Feet Up on the Desk … and Suddenly It Came To Me.…”

RICHARD WHITCOMB IS OFTEN ASKED WHAT MAKES HIM unique, how he has repeatedly managed to come up with conceptual breakthroughs that have cluded other talented aeronautics engineers. The answer, he believes, lies in his power of visualization. For some reason he can digest equations and wind tunnel data and turn them into a mental image, of air molecules flowing over airfoils for instance.

His earliest breakthrough was a very big one. In the years after the first supersonic flight, aircraft designers struggled to build a military jet capable of going faster than the speed of sound. The powerful drag forces that resulted from shock waves along a wing’s upper surface as it approached Mach 1 defeated them. Whitcomb realized there was a mathematical relationship between the drag forces and the cross section of the aircraft. He suggested that drag would be reduced dramatically if the fuselage were tapered at the point where the wings are widest. His “area rule” won him aviation’s highest honor, the Collier Trophy, in 1954.

He called his next big invention the “supercritical wing.” It utilizes a novel curved underside and a nearly flat top to produce more lift with less drag. His third major contribution was his design for “winglets,” small vertical airfoils placed at the tips of wings to counter drag-inducing turbulence. On May 3 of this year he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Part of the Whitcomb story is his legendary nonconformity. At the age of 59 he abruptly resigned from his senior position at NASA and took on a project that seemed to violate laws of basic physics. As a deeply concerned environmentalist, Whitcomb spent 10 years searching for a loophole in the second law of thermodynamics. He didn’t find one, but he says he has no regrets about any career decision. He continues to encourage energy conservation, and he delights in describing the efficiency of the silver Honda Insight gas-electric hybrid vehicle parked outside his home in Hampton, Virginia.

How did you decide to go into aviation?

When I was a kid, I built model airplanes. Real flying model airplanes, not display models. Then I read an article in Fortune magazine about the Langley Memorial Research Laboratory (which is now NASA’s Langley Research Center), and I said, “That’s where I want to go.” I arrived there in 1943. In 1947 Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the X-1, which we designed at Langley.


Although the X-1 was a big success, there wasn’t a lot of progress toward making supersonic flight routine until your area rule came along. How did that happen?

The X-1 was a rocket-powered vehicle. It was essentially an airplane, but rocket-powered. The rocket uses up fuel at a fantastically high rate, and so it would go up to supersonic speeds for only a few minutes. It wasn’t practical; we were just getting into the transonic age. We ran the transonic wind tunnel two shifts a day and sometimes seven days a week, so it was a very, very busy place.

You were a relatively young, inexperienced engineer when you came up with the area rule. How did you do it, when others who’d had more time in the business and more experience didn’t see it?

I’ve been asked this a hundred times. Why didn’t somebody think of it before? I realized that we knew nothing about what goes on near the speed of sound. So I made flow studies and wake surveys to see what happens at those speeds. Nobody ever has an idea out of the clear blue. You start off with experimental data. I had the idea, but I started off with data.

I’ve read that the actual moment of realization came suddenly.

Yes. Like in the comic pages, a light bulb above your head. It’s just like that. I was sitting there with my feet up on the desk, thinking about that data, and suddenly it came to me what it was.

I wouldn’t say it was counterintuitive, but it was very hard for other people to understand. They hadn’t seen my data. It took a while for the area rule to have an impact, but keep in mind that at this particular point, right in the middle of the deepest part of the Cold War, it was top-secret. Then, when people finally got the word about it, nobody wanted to be the first to use it. Let somebody else try it first! The Air Force was really behind us. What they did was award a contract to Convair to build a supersonic plane. But then, when Convair built it, it wouldn’t go faster than sound. So the Air Force told Convair that if they didn’t try the area rule, the contract would be canceled. That was one way to get them to use it.

And when Convair did use it, it went through the speed of sound very nicely. After the top-secret clearance was removed, in 1955, it became a very, very big story. It was on the top right of the front page of The New York Times . There was an article in Life magazine. I got my 15 minutes of fame.

How did the supercritical-wing project come about?