Richard T. Whitcomb (1921- ) was born in Evanston, Illinois. His family later moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, where Whitcomb attended public schools. He received a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1943. Following graduation he accepted a position with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the forerunner of NASA) at Langley Laboratories, Virginia. Whitcomb devoted much of his career to research in the problems of supersonic flight.
In the early 1950s Whitcomb discovered the transonic area rule concept. This rule amounts to a sensitive balance of fuselage and wing volume, which minimizes drag at transonic speeds. This concept was applied to post World War II fighters and resulted in operational military aircraft capable of supersonic flight.
Whitcomb earned international acclaim through his accomplishments with the area rule concept and the supercritical wing. Until his retirement from NASA he worked on aircraft energy efficiency and new winglet configurations.
The supercritical wing concept was developed by Dr. Richard T. Whitcomb of the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Whitcomb's airfoil was designed to delay formation of shock waves at high speeds.
In comparison with conventional wing cross sections, the supercritical wing was flattened on top, delaying the formation of shock waves and moving them further aft along the wing to increase total wing efficiency. To compensate for the lift lost with the flattened wing top, the rear lower surface was shaped with a deeper, more concave curve. The Mach number (the speed of the aircraft calculated as a percentage of the speed of sound) at which the relative airflow reaches the speed of sound at some point on the airframe is called the critical Mach number. Below the critical Mach number the flow is said to be subcritical, and above the critical Mach number it is called supercritical. The initial wind tunnel tests of the supercritical wing indicated that the new airfoil shape could allow highly efficient flight near the speed of sound of approximately 660 mph at cruising altitudes.
Initial designs for the supercritical wing were produced in 1964. The development of the supercritical airfoils included three phases: slotted (1964-1966); integral (1967); and thickened trailing edge integral (1968-1969). Flight testing of the supercritical wing began in 1971 and ended in December 1972. A Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) F-8 aircraft modified with the supercritical wing was used in these tests, making its first flight on 25 March 1955. The LTV F-8 was a single place land or carrier based supersonic aircraft equipped with radar to provide an all-weather capability. Its most unusual feature was the hydraulically operated variable incidence wing.
The blunt leading edge of the supercritical wing led to better takeoff, landing, and maneuvering characteristics. Subsonic transports, business jets, STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft, and remotely piloted vehicles made use of the supercritical wing technology, using less fuel and flying more efficiently than aircraft with conventional wings.
The F-8 Supercritical Wing Collection was received by the National Air and Space Museum in July 1984 from NASA's Langley Research Center. The collection was assembled originally by Dennis W. Bartlett Richard Whitcomb's colleague at Langley's 8-Foot Transonic Dynamics Tunnel. The material in the collection came from the offices and warehouses of the tunnel facility.