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Air Force Secretary Widnall Stepping Down

By Linda Kramer/People


WASHINGTON (Oct. 1) -- Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall says she is a "richer person and I don't mean that in the money sense" as she prepares to leave the Pentagon after four years as the first woman to head a military service.

"I probably am a more complex person coming back from this experience," says Widnall, who has been on a leave of absence from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and plans to return to the campus. "All the base visits and interacting and handling of individual military justice cases has given me a tremendous range in dealing with people and their concerns."

Widnall, 59, has announced she will step down effective Oct. 31 to return to MIT.

An aeronautical engineer by training, Widnall says her experience as an educator working with young adults proved more valuable over the last four years than her technical expertise. But she says some personnel issues she confronted in the Air Force turned out to be "somewhat different than what I had been involved in before."


For example, Lt. Kelly Flinn.

As Lawrence Korb of the Brookings Institution notes, the civilian secretaries of the armed forces rarely make headlines unless a Tailhook, Aberdeen or Kelly Flinn case lands on their desk. "That's when the poor secretary comes in," says Korb. Otherwise, says Korb, the secretaries tend to stay in the shadow of the chiefs of staff and the secretary of Defense.

Certainly Widnall never attracted much attention during her first three years in office. Her focus included emphasizing Air Force core values, its mission in space, and funding for F-22 fighters. She was known for camping out each summer with the Air Force Academy freshman class, for going up in almost every kind of plane the Air Force flies, and for taking off on early-morning bicycle treks when she visited bases around the country.

Then came Kelly Flinn, the Air Force's first B-52 female pilot, and, a few months later, William Kite. Both were young lieutenants and both were facing courts martial because of their relationships with the opposite sex. Each petitioned Widnall for an honorable discharge in lieu of court martial. Widnall's choices were to let them face the court martial or allow them to resign with an honorable, general or "other than honorable" discharge. She granted the general discharge.


"I think on balance it came out right," says Widnall, who had flown in a B-52 with Flinn. "It was difficult."

Widnall stoutly rejects any suggestion that her decision was a setback to women. "My whole career has been marked by a commitment to the success of women in professions," she says.

Widnall is proud of the Air Force's record on gender issues. She points out that 26 percent of its new recruits are female, and "99.6 percent of all Air Force careers are open to women. Women are fighter pilots and bomber pilots."

"I think she's had an enormous impact on women in the military," says Sheila Cheston, general counsel of the Department of the Air Force. "By virtue of being not only a woman, but an extremely qualified woman in that position, she has broken a barrier and she sends a loud and clear message to women throughout the military about what is possible."

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Friday Oct. 10, 1997

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Air Force Secretary Widnall Stepping Down
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Tape Shows Reagan White House Fund-Raising Pitch

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Report: Foster Was Deeply Depressed ...

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