Clinton's pick for Air Force chief a pioneer aviation engineer Scientists and academics praise nominee's ability

July 06, 1993|By Boston Globe

Sheila E. Widnall, the 54-year-old aeronautics professor named by President Clinton to be secretary of the Air Force, distinguished herself as one of the first women to excel in her field, sharpening her knowledge of the mechanics of aircraft as she moved between the realms of university research and federal agencies.

If confirmed by the Senate, the Lexington, Mass., resident will be the first woman to serve as secretary of any of the military services.

Announcing her nomination Friday, Mr. Clinton praised Ms. Widnall as "a woman of high achievement, a respected scientist, a skilled administrator and a dedicated citizen."

Ms. Widnall graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1960 and was its first alumna appointed to the faculty in the school of engineering.

"I've known her since she was a grad student here, and she was outstanding," said Jack Kerrebrock, former associate dean of the school of engineering at MIT and a fellow faculty member in Ms. Widnall's department of aeronautics and astronautics.

"She was unique, because she was the one woman who went on into the faculty here, and in those days there weren't very many female grad students in aeronautics and astronautics. One might say there were very few," Mr. Kerrebrock said.

Today, Ms. Widnall is known on campus as an innovative scientist willing and able to take on controversial administrative tasks.

"She's considered to be a person with a lot of leadership ability," said Earll Murman, chairman of the department of aeronautics and astronautics. "I'm sure she'd make an outstanding secretary of the Air Force."

In recent years, Mr. Murman said, Ms. Widnall served on MIT's committee on discipline, where she dealt with allegations that students had wrongly collaborated on schoolwork.

She also served as chairwoman of an ad hoc committee to review the abolition of departments at the institute. The committee was established in the midst of a campus uproar over an institute decision to disband an applied biology department.

"That experience should serve her well in the event there's downsizing in the Air Force," Mr. Murman said. Ms. Widnall holds at least two patents, one of them for an aerodynamic device that could be used on either watercraft or aircraft, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

"She's an outstanding engineer and scientist," Mr. Murman said.

Ms. Widnall is currently associate provost at MIT, where she is responsible for faculty and academic matters, federal relations and some international programs.

The Abby Rockefeller Mauze professor in the department of aeronautics and astronautics (the study of the fluid mechanics of planes and spacecraft, respectively), Ms. Widnall is no stranger to Washington. As is common in the field, she has gone back and forth between Cambridge, Mass., and the capital.

She was director of university research for the Transportation Department in 1974 and 1975. In addition, she was a member of the National Academy of Science's Panel on Scientific Responsibility and the Conduct of Research. She was also president of the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Nor is Ms. Widnall unfamiliar with the military. She served for six years on the U.S. Air Force Academy's board of visitors, including two years as chairwoman, and she worked for five years on the military airlift committee of the National Defense Transportation Association. She was also an adviser on aeronautic systems at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.

Ms. Widnall is married to William Widnall, an aeronautical engineer who has worked for the Air Force's global satellite systems and who was involved in the Apollo project. The couple have two children, a son, William, 27, and a daughter, Ann, 25.

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