Dr. Sheila E. Widnall, a woman of outstanding scientific achievement, dedicated citizen, and skilled administrator, was Secretary of the United States Air Force from 1993-1997, the first woman to head a branch of the U.S. military.
Master pilot, astrophysicist, educator on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for over 30 years, her engineering accomplishments recognized by election to the National Academy of Engineering, Widnall is internationally known for her work in fluid dynamics, specifically in the areas of aircraft turbulence and the spiraling air flows called vortices created by helicopters. Before her appointment as Secretary of the Air Force, Widnall served on the USAF Academy Board of Visitors, and on advisory committees to Military Airlift Command and Wright-Patterson Air force Base, Ohio. She was appointed a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in February 2003.
A native of Tacoma, Washington, Widnall came east to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology at a time when women students in science and technology were few. She was one of twenty-three women in the freshman class of nine hundred thirty-six. She earned her B.Sc. in 1960, her M.S. in 1961, and her Sc.D. in 1964 in aeronautics and astronautics at the Institute, and was appointed Assistant Professor in 1964. She was appointed Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1986 and Institute Professor in 1998. She served as Associate Provost 1992-1993.
Known for her accomplishments in education and training, her people first attitude, her prolific writing and research, and ability to spur technological and scientific development, Widnall has been a major role model and trailblazer for women in the military and in science. Prior to her appointment as Secretary of the Air Force, she was the first MIT alumna appointed to the faculty of the School of Engineering and the first woman to serve as chair of the faculty (1979-1980).