In MyM – Mecanizados y Montajes Aeronáuticos we have a premiere. We inaugurate the blog of our website, a space for dialogue and learning, where the aerospace sector, its history, curiosities, research, technology… will be the main protagonists.
We begin this new communication channel with a bit of history, approaching the figure of Elizabeth Muriel Gregory, “Elsie” MacGill. This Canadian became the first woman in the world to become a director of aeronautical engineering in 1938.
But this was not the only milestone in her professional career, a road full of obstacles that she managed to overcome. She became the first woman to graduate in electrical engineering in 1927, and also the first woman to earn a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1929. Both degrees were certified by the University of Toronto.
MacGill was not the first woman to design an aircraft as such. Earlier examples include E. Lilian Todd, who designed her first airplane and exhibited it in 1906. However, Elsie is considered the first woman to design an aircraft with the title of engineer and also the first to be accepted into the Engineering Institute of Canada.
The first female engineer in a male-dominated field
Elsie MacGill was born on March 27, 1905 in Canada and would soon become interested in electrical engineering. Although her time at university was not easy, due to the insistence of deans to belittle her in front of her peers, she completed her degree and began working in Michigan for the Austin Automobile Company. When the company began manufacturing airplanes, she became interested in aeronautics, earning her degree in this specialty.
In her native country she began her aeronautical career in Quebec, specifically at Fairchild Aircraft. There she specialized in structural calculations. He submitted several papers to the Royal Engineering Society and they were published in the Engineering Journal.
Her achievements in the field of engineering were accompanied by a great deal of work within the women’s rights movement, as we will see a little later, and a fundamental contribution to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women between 1967 and 1970.
A life full of difficulties
And, as we said, not everything was success and ease in Elsie’s career. On the other hand, MacGill survived polio, a disease she contracted in May 1929. Doctors told her she might never be able to walk again. However, with great effort he regained the use of his legs and even continued to drive his Ford Roadster, using his hands to lift his leg when he needed to push in the clutch.
After her recovery, in 1938, MacGill became director of aeronautical engineering at Canadian Car & Foundry (CCF) in Fort William, where she was commissioned to design a training aircraft for use in Mexico, of which she herself was the first passenger.
“The Queen of the Hurricanes”
After the outbreak of World War II, CCF was the company chosen by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and RCAF to manufacture the Hawker Hurricane fighters. MacGill was in charge of developing the large-scale production processes needed to build more than 1,000 aircraft in a very short time frame. Thus, the first Hurricane made its maiden flight in January 1940, with some modifications added by MacGill to adapt the fighter to low temperatures.
By the time the production line was closed in 1943, 1,400 aircraft had rolled off the line and, to meet demand, the plant was expanded from 500 employees to more than 4,500, more than half of whom were women.
It would be in these years that she would earn her nickname, ‘The Queen of Hurricanes’, which would give title to one of the biographies that chronicles her life. In 1940, Elsie wrote The Factors Affecting the Mass Production of Aircraft, later published in The Engineering Journal. Her role in the production of these airplanes made her famous, so much so that a comic book was published in the United States, using her nickname, “hurricane queen.”
At this time, several media outlets echoed her brilliance by publishing phrases of hers such as:
“The challenge of winning the war fell squarely on Canadian engineering…”.
“We are working not only for the purpose of winning, but also for the glory of bringing peace to the whole world.”
In Toronto, she founded her own aviation consulting firm and, in 1946, became the first woman to join the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). There she was responsible for outlining international airworthiness regulations for the design and production of commercial aircraft. She would also be the first woman at the Canadian Aeronautical and Space Institute, as well as the Engineering Institute of Canada. In 1947, she was a member of a United Nations committee for structural calculations.
Advocate for women’s rights
In the 1950s she suffered an accident that broke her healthy leg, but instead of standing still, she became involved in campaigns for women’s rights, such as the availability of childcare and maternity leave. In 1967, she was appointed to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada.
Elizabeth MacGill died on November 4, 1980, at the age of 75, one of the country’s most respected engineers. Among the awards she received were induction into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame and the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame, the Gzowski Medal of the Engineering Institute of Canada and the Order of Canada. He also received honorary doctorates from the universities of Toronto, Windsor, Queens and York in his later years.