In the years after World War II, military aviators found it so hard to fly faster than sound that they referred to the problem as the "sound barrier." It wasn't until Whitcomb, at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, invented the special streamlining techniques needed at such high speeds that the sound barrier was broken for good.
The solution, which subsequently came to be known as the "area rule," redirected the air over the wings through a more streamlined aircraft fuselage and eventually allowed for a supersonic Air Force. Following the concept of the "area rule," Whitcomb designed a new aircraft wing that increased the range, speed and fuel efficiency of the jet. A uniquely shaped airfoil yielded weaker shock waves and created less drag for more efficiency. This supercritical wing was successfully tested with the NASA Dryden TF-8A Crusader in 1971. In the mid-1970's, Whitcomb invented the winglet, which are small, wing-like surfaces located at the end of each aircraft wing and which provide for greater efficiency.
Whitcomb was born in Evanston, Illinois, but grew up in Massachusetts and graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1943 with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering.
Of the many prestigious awards he has received, Whitcomb says that he is most proud of the National Medal of Science that was conferred upon him by the President Nixon in 1973. He also received the Collier Trophy in 1954, which is given annually to the greatest achievement in American aviation. Others include the Air Force Exceptional Service Medal, the NACA Distinguished Service Medal, and the NASA Scientific Achievement Medal.