Mechanical engineer Richard Whitcomb, 88, who changed the way we fly with design innovations that made airplanes go farther and faster using less fuel, died of pneumonia Tuesday in Newport News, Va.

His contributions, for which he won the most prestigious prize in aviation, focused on a plane's efficiency cutting through air at speeds approaching the sound barrier. As airplanes approach the speed of sound, they encounter a significant increase in "drag," or force that resists the plane's forward movement through the air.

Mr. Whitcomb developed a new body design and made improvements to the wings and how they attach to the fuselage to lessen the amount of drag on the airplane. With those changes, new Air Force fighter jets sailed through the sound barrier and kept going, adding as much as 100 m.p.h. to their top speeds.

"His intellectual fingerprints are evident on virtually every commercial aircraft flying today," said Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum. He called Mr. Whitcomb one of the most important aeronautical engineers since the end of World War II.

At 34, Mr. Whitcomb won the National Aeronautic Association's Collier Trophy for the "greatest achievement in aviation in 1954." In 1973, he received the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for science and engineering. He was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Engineering.

- Washington Post