Sheila E. Widnall

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Sheila E. Widnall

Sheila E. Widnall (born 1938) was the first woman to head one of the country's military branches, the United States Air Force. While at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she developed the anechoicwind tunnel to study the phenomenon of noice and V/STOL aircraft.

Sheila E. Widnall is an accomplished researcher, educator, and writer in the field of aerospace engineering. A specialist in fluid dynamics at the Massachusettes Institute of Technology (MIT) for nearly three decades, she has also served in numerous administrative and advisory posts in industry, government, and academia. In August, 1993, Widnall was appointed Secretary of the United States Air Force, the first woman to head one of the country's military branches.

Sheila Evans Widnall was born to Rolland John and Genievieve Alice Evans in Tacoma, Washington, on July 13, 1938. Her father worked as a rodeo cowboy before becoming a production planner for Boeing Aircraft Company and, later, a teacher. Her mother was a juvenile probation officer. Interested in airplanes and aircraft design from her childhood, Widnall decided to pursue a career in science after she won the first prize at her high school science fair. She entered MIT in September, 1956, one of twenty-one women in a class of nine hundred, and received her Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautics and astronautics in 1960. She continued on at MIT to earn a Master of Science degree in 1961 and the Doctor of Science degree in 1964, both in aeronautics and astronautics. Upon graduation, MIT awarded Widnall a faculty post as assistant professor in mathematics and aeronautics. She was the first alumna to serve on the faculty in the school of engineering. In 1970 MIT promoted her to associate professor, and in 1974 to full professor. During her tenure at MIT, Widnall served as head of the Division of Fluid Mechanics from 1975 to 1979, and as director of the Fluid Dynamics Laboratory from 1979 to 1990.

Widnall specialized in the theories and applications of fluid dynamics, particularly in problems associated with air turbulence created by rotating helicopter blades. Her research focused on the vortices or eddies of air created at the ends and at the trailing edge of helicopter blades as they swirl through the air. These vortices are the source of noise, instability, and vibrations that affect the integrity of the blades and the stability of the aircraft. Widnall pursued similar interests in relation to aircraft that make vertical, short take-offs and landings (that is, V/STOL aircraft) and the noise associated with them. To this end, her studies led her to establish the anechoic wind tunnel at MIT, where researchers study the phenomenon of noise and V/STOL aircraft. During her tenure at MIT, Widnall established a reputation as an expert in her field and lectured widely on her research in vortices and their relation to aerodynamics. Widnall is the author of seventy papers on fluid dynamics as well as other areas of science and engineering; she has also served as associate editor for the scientific publications Journal of Aircraft, Physics of Fluids, and the Journal of Applied Mechanics.

In addition to writing about aerodynamics, Widnall has also published articles and delivered talks about the changing attitudes and trends in education for prospective engineers and scientists. In 1988, as newly elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Widnall addressed the association on her longstanding interest in seeing more women become scientists and engineers and the problems they face in attaining higher degrees and achieving professional goals. In recognition of Widnall's efforts on behalf of women in science and engineering, in 1986 MIT awarded her the Abby Rockefeller Mauze chair, an endowed professorship awarded to those who promote the advancement of women in industry and in the arts and professions.

Along with her technical and scientific interests, Widnall has been active in administration, public policy, and industry consulting. In 1974 she became the first director of university research of the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 1979 MIT nominated Widnall to be the first woman to chair its 936-member faculty; she chaired MIT's Committee on Academic Responsibility for a year beginning in 1991; and she was named associate provost at the university in 1992. In addition to her term as president of the AAAS, Widnall has served on the board of directors for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, as a member of the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government, and as a consultant to businesses and colleges, including American Can Corporation, Kimberly-Clark, McDonnell Douglas Aircraft, and Princeton University. Her career has been recognized with numerous awards, including the Lawrence Sperry Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1972, the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Society of Women Engineers in 1975, and the Washburn Award from the Boston Museum of Science in 1987. She was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1985. In 1996 she was named New Englander of the Year by the New England Council and was admitted into the Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame.

Widnall's association with the Air Force developed through her appointment by President Carter to two three-year terms on the Air Force Academy's board of visitors, which she chaired from 1980-1982. She also served on advisory committees to the Military Airlift Command and to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. As Secretary of the Air Force, Widnall is responsible for all administrative, training, recruiting, logistical support, and prsonnel matters, as well as research and development operations.

She married William Soule Widnall, also an aeronautical engineer, in June, 1960. The couple has two grown children, William and Ann Marie. In her spare time, Widnall enjoys bicycling, wind surfing, and hiking in the Cascade Mountains with her husband in her native Washington. In September 1997, Widnall announced that she would resign as secretary of the Air Force, effective October 31, to return to academia.

Further Reading

Dr. Sheila E. Widnall, "," July 23, 1997.

Air Force Times, August 2, 1993, p. 4.

Jehl, Douglas, "M.I.T. Professor Is First Woman Chosen as Secretary of Air Force," in New York Times, July 4, 1993, sec. 1, p. 20.

Sears, William R., "Sheila E. Widnall: President-Elect of AAAS," in Association Affairs, June 6, 1986, pp. 1119-1200.

Stone, Steve, "Air Force Secretary Salutes Female Aviators," in Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, October 10, 1993, p. B3.

"USAF Head Approved," in Aviation Week & Space Technology, August 9, 1993, p. 26.

Physics Today, February 1986, p. 69.

Biography, Dr. Sheila E. Widnall, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force/Public Affairs, November 1993. □