Former Secretary of the Air Force, Sheila E. Widnall became the first woman placed in charge of a branch of the military when President Clinton appointed her to the post in 1993. Widnall entered the Air Force after 28 years working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she became a world-renowned expert in fluid dynamics and garnered three patents in airflow technology.
A native of Tacoma, Washington, Widnall was interested as a young teenager in pursing an engineering education. In 1956, she became one of 23 women out of 936 MIT freshmen to earn an engineering degree. She completed all three of her degrees at MIT. Widnall graduated with a bachelor’s of science degree in aeronautics and astronautics in 1960. In 1961, she received her master’s degree, and in 1964 she completed her PhD.
Widnall's specialty is in aircraft turbulence and the spiraling airflows. Aircraft turbulence has an important bearing on performance of aircraft, and Widnall’s research has included topics such as turbulence, boundary layer stability, unsteady hydrodynamic loads on hydrofoils of finite span, unsteady lifting-surface theory, unsteady air forces on oscillating cylinders in subsonic and supersonic flow, and aerodynamics of high-speed ground transportation vehicles. Her work has made major contributions to the understanding and prediction of helicopter rotor blade aerodynamics and noise generation, unsteady loads on high-speed trains, and breakup and decay of aircraft wave vortices. One of her patents is on an aerodynamic “tailored elastic airfoil section” for either water or air vehicles.
Widnall is also known for designing MIT's advanced wind tunnel facility, which she did as a faculty member of MIT’s School of Engineering. The facility enables students to conduct aviation-related experiments by allowing them to discover the effects of air movement on different surfaces. She was the first woman to be named to a professorial post at the school. In 1979, she became the first woman to lead the entire MIT faculty as associate provost.
Widnall was a member of the Board of Visitors for the U.S. Air Force Academy from 1978 to 1984 and was the board's chairman in 1980-1982. She also served on advisory committees to the Military Aircraft Command and Wright Patterson Air Force Base. She served as a trustee of the Aerospace Corporation and of the Carnegie Corporation, and is a member of the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government.
During her tenure with the Air Force, Widnall was responsible for 400,000 active duty forces and 185,000 men and women in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. She was also responsible for planning and allocating the service's annual $62 billion budget. Other responsibilities included logistical support, maintenance, research and development and welfare of personnel.
Widnall retired from her post as Secretary of the Air Force in 1997 and resumed her career at MIT, She had been active in the Lean Aerospace Initiative with special emphasis on the space and policy focus teams.
Today she is a Institute Professor of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT.
Widnall has garnered a number of awards during her career. Honors have included the National Academy of Engineering Distinguished Service Award in 1993, the W. Stuart Symington Award from the Air Force Association in 1995, the Durand Lectureship for Public Service Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1996, and induction into the Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame, also in 1996. She was also the 2009 National Academy of Engineering Arthur M. Bueche award recipient.