Annals of Flight: Richard Whitcomb Dies at 88

Winglet On the way home from Los Angeles, in a 757 seven miles above the American West at 620 mph, I read in The New York Times about the death of aero engineer Richard Whitcomb. I looked around the cabin, and reckoned that nearly everyone on board took this amazing technology of jet flight for granted. I’m sure none of them knew that Mr. Whitcomb had passed, nor his two contributions to their journey east. Some 40 years ago, Whitcomb invented the “supercritical” wing, which was a further advance in design, creating more lift and less drag — thus saving millions and million of gallons of fuel, as well as tons of CO2 emissions. If they looked out the window, they would have seen Mr. Whitcomb’s other huge (and more recent) invention, the tail-like winglets that now grace all of American’s 757s and the wings of many other aircraft. Those also save fuel and reduce emissions. Of that invention, Mr. Whitcomb said, “It’s intuitive. I didn’t run a lot of tests to arrive at an idea, and I didn’t run a lot of mathematical calculations. I’d just sit there and think about what the air was doing, based on flow studies in the wind tunnel.”

Mr. Whitcomb was, the obit said, a quiet man. He never crowed, but we pause to thank him for his contributions to our lives and our planet. I looked out the window and smiled. Thanks, Mr. Whitcomb. I take nothing for granted.

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