3/22/2013 – FORT MEADE, Md. (AFNS) — In a field dominated by boys, especially during the mid 1950’s, a young high school junior in Tacoma, Wash., was determined to win her local science fair. Borrowing a small piece of uranium from her uncle, who worked for a mining company, the student created a model of atoms and set up a display to explain the science behind radioactive decay.
She not only won the science fair, but so impressed the science community, she drew the attention of MIT alumni who encouraged her to follow her dreams, starting with getting her education from one of the nation’s top science and technology universities.
Accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that young science student was one of only 20 women, out of a freshman class of 1,100. More than three decades later, and a stream of firsts in the aeronautics and astronautics field, Sheila Widnall would become the first woman secretary of the Air Force, and, to date, the only woman to serve as a secretary of a military service.
Taking the helm of the Air Force on Aug. 6, 1993, Widnall spent more than four years overseeing the readiness, training and equipping of a force of more than 380,000 active duty Airmen, 251,000 Guard and reservists and more than 180,000 civilians. During her tenure as secretary of the Air Force, Widnall focused on quality of life issues, modernization, acquisition reform and scientific development.
The MIT professor took over the job of Air Force modernization at a time when the Cold War was pretty much over and the Gulf War had been relegated to the history books and the services were working with sharply reduced budgets.
While secretary, Widnall was involved with the unveiling of the C-17 airlifter program and was witness to the early flights of the F-22 Raptor. Her aeronautical expertise was invaluable during this period, especially when dealing with Congress and explaining complex Air Force programs to those on Capitol Hill.
In addition to finding ways to do more with less, Widnall also focused on modernization and the future. She streamlined the acquisition process and explored the use of privatization at just about every level – from base services to depot maintenance to computers.
Widnall also saw the importance of individual Airmen, struggling with pilot retention and focusing on quality of life programs that impacted the entire family.
Widnall was no stranger to the Air Force and government service before her selection to lead the service, appointed by President Jimmy Carter to two three-year terms as to the board of visitors at the Air Force Academy, and on an advisory committee to the Military Airlift Command (now AMC), as well as to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
But as well-known and popular as she was as secretary of the Air Force, Widnall is best known for her impact on academia. After earning a bachelor’s, masters and doctorate from MIT in aeronautics and astronautics, she was awarded a faculty post as assistant professor in mathematics and aeronautics.
By 1974 she had been elevated to full professor status, and from 1975 to 1979 served as head of the division of fluid mechanics and for the next 11 years as the director of the fluid dynamics laboratory. She specialized in the theories and application of fluid dynamics, especially in the area dealing with problems of air turbulence created by rotating helicopter blades. She also spent time focusing on aircraft that make vertical, short take-offs and landings. Over the years, she has authored more than 70 papers dealing with various areas of fluid dynamics.
For Sheila Widnall, following her dream nearly 60 years ago has resulted in a legacy that will make a permanent impact on the Air Force and the field of aviation science.