When President Clinton appointed her Secretary of the Air Force in 1993, Sheila E. Widnall became the first woman placed in charge of a branch of the military. She is responsible for 400,000 active duty forces as well as 185,000 men and women in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. Sheila came to the Air Force after 28 years at MIT, where she won international acclaim for her work in fluid dynamics.
While associate provost at MIT, Sheila’s responsibilities included academic integrity, federal relations, faculty retirement, promotion and tenure policies, and international educational programs. She was a member of the board of visitors for the United States Air Force Academy and served a term as the board's chairwoman. Sheila 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 the Carnegie Corporation, and she is a member of the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government. She was a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Panel of Scientific Responsibility and served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1974, Sheila served as the first director of university research at the United States Department of Transportation.
Sheila also designed MIT’s advanced wind tunnel facility. She holds three patents.
In 1979, Sheila became the first woman to head the entire MIT faculty. Sheila’s specialty is in aircraft turbulence and spiraling airflows.
Her research included boundary layer stability, unsteady hydrodynamic loads on fully wetter and supercavitating hydrofoils of finite span, unsteady lifting-surface theory, unsteady air forces on oscillating cylinders in subsonic and supersonic flow, the aerodynamics of high-speed ground transportation, turbulence, and transition.
Although encouraged to pursue an engineering education, Sheila was unprepared for the pressure she encountered at MIT. When she enrolled in 1956, she was one of just 23 women out of 936 freshmen. She was the first MIT alumna named to the faculty in the school of engineering.