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RICHARD T. WHITCOMB

1921–2009

Elected in 1976

“For pioneering research and application in the aerodynamic design of high performance aircraft.”

BY RICHARD H. PETERSEN
SUBMITTED BY THE NAE HOME SECRETARY

RICHARD T. WHITCOMB, aviation pioneer, died in Newport News, Virginia, on October 13, 2009, at the age of 88. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Langley Research Center engineer has been called the most significant aerodynamic contributor of the second half of the 20th century. His work changed the way we fly today with three design innovations that allowed airplanes to fly farther and faster using less fuel. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1976 for his “pioneering research and application in the aerodynamic design of high performance aircraft.”

Born on February 21, 1921, in Evanston, Illinois, Richard Travis Whitcomb was the son and grandson of engineers. He grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, in an era when aviation pioneers such as Charles Lindbergh were household names. He built and flew rubberband-powered model airplanes. His interest in aerodynamics continued into college at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he joined the aeronautics club and spent a lot of time in the school’s wind tunnel.

Whitcomb came to what is now NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in 1943, during World War II, after graduating with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering with highest honors. It was a busy time for aeronautical engineers working to improve America’s military



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