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Aeronautics, Safety and Technology

Widnall Former Secretary of the Air Force, Sheila E. Widnall became the first woman placed in charge of a branch of the military when she was appointed to the post by President Clinton in 1993. Widnall entered the Air Force after working at MIT for 28 years, 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 teenager in pursing an engineering education. In 1956, she became one of just 23 women in the incoming MIT freshmen class of 936 students. She completed all three of her degrees at MIT: graduating with a bachelor of science degree in aeronautics and astronautics in 1960, her master's degree in 1961, and her PhD in 1964.

Widnall's specialty is in aircraft turbulence and the spiraling airflows. Aircraft turbulence has an important bearing on the 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, 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 most recent 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 member of MIT's faculty in the 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 head 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 has resumed her career at MIT. Today she is the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and she was named Institute Professor in November 1998.

A pilot, wife, mother, inventor, teacher, and pioneer in her field, 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.



[March 2001]


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