Inventor of the Week Archive
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Aeronautics, Safety and Technology
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
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.