air superiority, and Whitcomb dived right in. In less than a decade he tackled and solved one of the biggest challenges of the day—how to achieve practical, efficient transonic flight.
In interviews over the years, Whitcomb told how he was sitting one day with his feet up on his desk when he had a “Eureka!” moment and came up with what is known as the Area Rule. He theorized that the shape of the fuselage could be changed to reduce the aircraft shock wave drag that occurs near the speed of sound. The basic idea was to ensure a smooth cross-sectional area distribution between the front and back of the plane. Because projections from the fuselage increase a plane’s cross section, narrowing the fuselage where the wings and tail assembly attach reduces drag. “We built airplane models with Coke-bottle shaped fuselages and lo and behold the drag of the wing just disappeared,” said Whitcomb. “The wind tunnel showed it worked perfectly.” (The wind-tunnel model Whitcomb used to develop the Area Rule is displayed in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.)
The Area Rule was first tested in flight on the Convair YF-102, a delta-winged jet fighter that flew well at supersonic speeds but had difficulty passing through transonic speeds. The plane was lengthened and given the now-famous “Coke-bottle” fuselage. In the words of a test pilot, the redesigned Convair YF-106 “slipped right past the speed of sound and kept on going.”
For his development of the Area Rule the Langley engineer, aged 34, was awarded the National Aeronautics Association’s Collier Trophy for the greatest achievement in aviation in 1954. Previous recipients included aviation pioneers such as Glenn H. Curtis, Glenn L. Martin, Elmer A. Sperry, and Donald W. Douglas.
Looking at almost any large airplane today—especially those that fly at transonic and supersonic speeds—one can see the genius of Dick Whitcomb. He developed three important aeronautical innovations while working at NASA Langley, one in each decade of his career. The Area Rule was Whitcomb’s major accomplishment of the 1950s, but his “supercritical wing” revolutionized the design of jet liners after the 1960s.