Elsie MacGill was Canada’s first woman aeronautical engineer who made many lasting contributions to aircraft development
by Dick Bourgeois-Doyle
Summer, 2011, Altitude
The volunteers who applied their skills to restore the museum’s Fairchild Super 71 airplane, CF-AUJ, were motivated by the knowledge they were working on something truly unique and were giving new life to an aircraft that marked an important milestone in Canadian aviation history.
The Super 71 is the only one of its kind in the world – it was the only such plane ever constructed and it was also the first all-metal fuselage plane fully designed and manufactured in Canada. The Super 71 was the first plane to be purpose-built as a transport bush plane and, with its inaugural flight in October 1934, it constituted Canada’s first step into a new era of workhorse aircraft with sleeker appearances and greater performance potential.
The volunteers who methodically rebuilt the plane piece by piece over 18 years in the restoration shop may have known these and other facts about CF-AUJ, but even they may not have fully appreciated its historic importance and the impact that it had beyond what is visible in the airframe and its log books.
The design, development, testing and construction of the Super 71 was an energizing and inspiring project for everyone involved: the engineers and designers working at the Fairchild Aircraft plant in Longueuil, Quebec; the bush pilots and business people who anticipated its production; and the researchers and scientists who applied new developments in aeronautics to testing and development. While only one Super 71, the prototype now on display at the museum, was ever built, the people who were touched by the experience of building it fanned out to other companies and organizations to underpin the innovative element of a rapidly growing aircraft industry in the pre-Second World War period and then later during the hyper wartime phase of the sector’s growth.
One of these people was a young junior engineer at Fairchild who would become branded as “one of the most important individual women” of her time and one who “entirely change(d) the nature of her country, legally, economically, and certainly in terms of the quality of life.” Her name was Elsie Gregory MacGill – the first woman aeronautical engineer in the world, the first female professional aircraft designer, the first woman to earn a degree in electrical engineering in Canada, the first woman anywhere to receive a master’s degree in aeronautical sciences, the first woman to design and construct an entire aircraft, and the first woman to receive many of her profession’s honours and distinctions.
A proud scientist and engineer, MacGill identified herself with her technical work and aviation all her life, but her life also embraced important roles outside her profession, particularly in equality and human rights. She headed many national and regional business and women’s organizations and ultimately was a high-profile and forceful member of the 1960’s landmark Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Her words helped define laws in Canada, and her deeds had an enduring impact on all aspects of Canadian life.
These statements alone might tag Elsie MacGill as a woman worthy of study and emulation. Yet, they are perhaps amplified severalfold by knowing that she did all this in an environment of challenging gender bias and with the burden of a physical disability. On the eve of her graduation from the University of Michigan in May 1929, she fell ill to awaken paralyzed from the waist down. The polio that struck her body that night never left. She spent the next three years in bed and in a wheelchair at her home in Vancouver, slowly working to restore her mobility until she could pursue her aeronautical career with the use of metal canes.
At first, MacGill sought to reintegrate herself into the aviation world by taking doctoral studies and conducting research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but she ended her graduate studies in 1934 to return to Canada and join Fairchild in Longueuil as part of the team assembled to develop the design that would become the Super 71. Although MacGill was not the lead designer of this aircraft, she made important contributions as the expert on stress analysis, an important task in a design that embraced novel uses of materials and the all-metal fuselage. She also worked on components such as the floats. MacGill, however, was most remembered as the engineer who rode along with the test pilots as “official observer” to record the plane’s flight behaviour and performance. Although her disability thwarted her ambitions to become a pilot, she made the test flight observer role one of her specialties, and eventually crafted protocols for flight test performance recording that became an industry standard.
Before leaving Fairchild in 1938, MacGill contributed to other projects such as the legendary Fairchild 82 light transport plane and the innovative twin-engine Sekani. Although Fairchild adapted the Super 71 design for two other planes (Super 71P’s) used in photographic surveillance work by the military, MacGill and her colleagues would see only one fully constructed version of the original design, the now restored CF-AUJ. The plane provided impressive service – carrying unprecedented cargoes into the north country before crashing after hitting a log on take-off in Northern Ontario in 1940. By that time, the plane’s novelty and reputation were on the decline, and it is often said that the wreck would not have been salvaged had it not been for the gold bullion on board.
The lack of full-scale Super 71 production suggests a failed concept and enterprise. It is more likely, however, that the plane was, in part, a victim of its success as experience in the plane’s engineering work empowered Fairchild to seek other and more obviously lucrative work in the build-up to war.
It was empowering for individuals like Elsie MacGill too. There is no doubt that it was her grooming as a junior aeronautical engineer at Fairchild that gave her the opportunity and confidence to take the next step in her career and accept the job as chief aeronautical engineer at the booming Canadian Car and Foundry plant in Fort William where she participated in a string of similarly creative projects including the design, development, and construction of the Maple Leaf Trainer II in 1939. Work on this plane was overseen in its entirety by MacGill and would give her the credentials as the first woman to ever design an entire aircraft as a professional engineer.
With the outbreak of World War II, MacGill and her company were thrust into the frontlines of the fight to supply fighter aircraft to the Allies in Europe. Can-Car produced over 1,450 Hawker Hurricanes and started work on Helldiver bombers while MacGill was in charge of the engineering office. She and her team not only juggled thousands of work orders and design tasks, but also found time to introduce innovations in mass production and to influence the iconic Hurricane itself with the addition of de-icers, skis, and starters in a model that constituted the “winterized” Hurricane.
Her later life, which included a happy marriage to former colleague Bill Soulsby and parenthood to two stepchildren, was, of course, marked most profoundly by her work in social causes. Still, Elsie MacGill never let go of her identity as an aeronautical engineer and researcher – the one that took root with her work on the Fairchild Super 71, the precise piece of equipment now proudly restored and on display at WCAM.
This story originally appeared in the Summer, 2011 edition of Altitude.