Late NASA engineer thought like an "air molecule"

It was inevitable that the late Richard T. Whitcomb join the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Neil Armstrong and other luminaries in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Working at NASA Langley Research Center in the 1950s, Whitcomb redesigned the midsection of fighter jets to resemble an old-fashioned Coke bottle. The slimmer body helped reduce drag, making supersonic flight — traveling faster than the speed of sound — much easier.

The design has been applied to nearly every single jet since, according to NASA.

A decade later, Whitcomb, known as “Dick” among friends, turned his attention to commercial airplanes. He designed the supercritical airfoil, or wing, which was longer and sleeker than its predecessors. It gave pilots better control over the plane.

During the 1970s — as the nation reeled from an oil crisis — Whitcomb introduced winglets, the small vertical tips that appear on the end of many airplane wings. The design cut fuel consumption by about 5 percent.

“He was kind of the ultimate researcher,” Roy Harris, a former aeronautics chief at Langley, told the Daily Press in 2009 following Whitcomb’s death. “He had this innate ability to think like an air molecule.”

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