Whitcomb was born in Evanston, Illinois but grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts and earned his bachelors degree at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He spent most of his career at the Langley Research Center operated by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and its successor, NASA.
In the 1950s, Whitcomb proposed his area rule as regards the drag produced by aircraft on themselves when flying near the speed of sound. Its impact on aircraft design was immediate: the prototype Convair YF-102, for example, was found not to be capable of exceeding the speed of sound in level flight. This was rectified by re-sculpting the fuselage. For his insight, Whitcomb won the Collier Trophy in 1954.
In the 1960s, Whitcomb developed the supercritical airfoil. This was followed in the 1970s by his development of winglets, devices placed on wingtips to reduce the vortices produced there and the drag they induced. These improved the aerodynamic efficiency of wings and today are commonplace on airliners, where they reduce fuel consumption, as well as on sailplanes, where they improve glide ratio.
Whitcomb died in Newport News, Virginia.
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