Sheila Widnall

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Sheila Widnall
Wfm Widnall se1.jpg
18th United States Secretary of the Air Force
In office
August 6, 1993 – October 31, 1997
PresidentBill Clinton
Preceded byMerrill McPeak (Acting)
Succeeded byWhitten Peters
Personal details
Sheila Marie Evans

(1938-07-13) July 13, 1938 (age 83)
Tacoma, Washington, United States
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)William Widnall
EducationMassachusetts Institute of Technology (SB, SM, ScD)

Sheila Marie Evans Widnall (born July 13, 1938) is an American aerospace researcher and Institute Professor Emerita at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She served as United States Secretary of the Air Force between 1993 and 1997, making her the first female Secretary of the Air Force and the first woman to lead an entire branch of the US military in the Department of Defense. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2003.[4]

Life and career[edit]

Widnall graduated from MIT with a SB in 1960, SM in 1961, and ScD in 1964, all in Aeronautics. She was appointed as the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1986 and joined the Engineering Systems Division, was Chair of the Faculty 1979–1981, and has served as MIT's Associate Provost from 1992–1993. In 1988 she was the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

On July 4, 1993, in the wake of the Tailhook scandal, President Bill Clinton announced her nomination to be Secretary of the Air Force.[5] The Senate received her nomination July 22, 1993, and confirmed her two weeks later on August 5, 1993, 183 days after inauguration and 197 after the office became vacant.[6] She was the first woman to head a branch of the US military.[4] During her tenure she handled the Kelly Flinn scandal.[7] She was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1985,[8] serving as vice-president from 1998 to 2005[9] and winning their Arthur M. Bueche Award in 2009.[10]

Widnall was a member of the board of investigation into the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

She currently works with the Lean Advancement Initiative. She married William Soule Widnall in June 1960. Her husband earned a doctorate degree from MIT in aerospace engineering and headed the MIT-Draper team that developed the Apollo GN&C system.[11] The couple has two grown children, William and Ann Marie.[12]


Widnall's research has been focused on fluid mechanics, in particular the aerodynamics of high-speed vehicles, helicopters, aircraft wakes, and turbulence. One of her most notable works is on the elliptical instability mechanism with Raymond Pierrehumbert.[13]



  1. ^ "Sheila E. Widnall." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008. Document Number: K1631006966. Fee. Accessed 2008-10-31. Updated: 12/12/1998.
  2. ^ "Sheila Widnall." Notable Women Scientists. Gale Group, 2000. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008. Document Number: K1668000457. Fee. Accessed 2008-10-31. Updated: 11/05/2000
  3. ^ "Sheila E. Widnall." Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present. Online. Gale Group, 2008. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008. Document Number: K1619002898 Fee. Accessed 2008-10-31. Updated: 01/01/2001.
  4. ^ a b "Widnall, Sheila E." National Women’s Hall of Fame. Retrieved 2019-03-23.
  5. ^ Jehl, Douglas (1993-07-04). "M.I.T. Professor Is First Woman Chosen as Secretary of Air Force". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-10-31.
  6. ^ Palmer, Betsy (2005-03-23). 9/11 Commission Recommendations: The Senate Confirmation Process for Presidential Nominees (PDF). CRS Report for Congress. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved 2008-01-31.
  7. ^ Stout, David (1997-05-24). "'Part of Me Has Died,' Pilot Says in Apology". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-10-31. Even as she asked in vain for an honorable discharge, First Lieut. Kelly J. Flinn said in a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force that having to leave the service was a punishment she would carry to her grave.
  8. ^ National Academy of Engineering. "The Honorable Sheila E. Widnall".
  9. ^ "National Academy of Engineering Presented Extraordinary Impact Awards". Aerospace America. 47 (10): B10. 2009.
  10. ^ "NAE announces award winners John Casani and Sheila Widnall". 1 October 2009.
  11. ^ Sheila Widnall introduces her husband William to give MIT lecture on Apollo (video)
  12. ^ Sheila E. Widnall Facts - biography
  13. ^ Pierrehumbert, Raymond; Widnall, Sheila (1982). "The Two-Dimensional and Three-Dimensional Instabilities of a Spatially Periodic Shear Layer". Journal of Fluid Mechanics. 114: 59–82. doi:10.1017/s0022112082000044.

Further reading[edit]

  • "Widnall of MIT Is New President-elect Of AAAS." Physics Today (February 1986), p. 69.
  • Biography, "Dr. Sheila E. Widnall." Office of the Secretary of the Air Force/Public Affairs, November 1993.
  • Dr. Sheila E. Widnall, "<>", July 23, 1997.
  • Air Force Times, August 2, 1993, p. 4.
  • 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.
  • Biography, Dr. Sheila E. Widnall, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force/Public Affairs, November 1993.
  • Ewing, Lee, Air Force Times, Panelists Laud Widnall, Approve Her Nomination, August 2, 1993, p. 4.
  • Stone, Steve, Aviation Week & Space Technology, USAF Head Approved, August 9, 1993, p. 26.
  • Stone, Steve, Physics Today, Widnall of MIT Is New President-elect Of AAAS, February 1986, p. 69.
  • Biography, Dr. Sheila E. Widnall, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force/Public Affairs, November 1993.
  • Nature Q&A with Sheila Widnall

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
Merrill McPeak
Secretary of the Air Force
Succeeded by
Whitten Peters