September 28, 2023
October is Women’s History Month in Canada, a time to celebrate the women and girls from our past, and our present, who are contributing to a better, more inclusive Canada.
At the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada (RAMWC), we feature many women in aviation who’ve broken down barriers and blazed a trail for other aspiring aviation professionals. Elizabeth ‘Elsie’ MacGill was one of these women.
Throughout her long and distinguished career as an aeronautical engineer, Elsie MacGill achieved many ‘firsts’. She was the first woman to earn a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto in 1927, making her the first woman to do so in Canada. MacGill was also the first female aircraft designer in the world and the first woman to chair a United Nations committee in 1971. This committee created internationally accepted aircraft safety guidelines.
Elsie MacGill was born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1905 to James Henry MacGill, a lawyer, and Helen Gregory MacGill, Canada’s first female judge. Inspired by her career-minded mother, Elsie MacGill decided to enter the aviation industry and graduated with a Master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1929. Sadly, that same year she was struck with a severe polio infection, which doctors said would permanently paralyze her from the waist down.
Not one to be discouraged, MacGill exercised her legs daily and regained limited mobility with the aid of two metal canes. During her recovery, she wrote articles for various aviation publications and saved enough to pay for her doctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At age 29, Dr. Elsie MacGill was hired as an assistant aeronautical engineer by Fairchild Aircraft in Longueuil, Quebec. There, she helped design Canada’s first metal-hulled airplane, the Fairchild Super 71.
In 1938, MacGill became Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry (Can Car) in Thunder Bay, Ontario. When war broke out in Europe the following year, British aircraft manufacturers were unable to keep up with the high demand for planes to fight in the ongoing Battle of Britain. Can Car was contracted by the Royal Air Force to support the war effort by building their principal fighter plane, the Hawker Hurricane.
Production at the Can Car plant went into overdrive. The assembly staff swelled from 500 to 3,000 by 1941. Among these hires, 500 of them were women.
A total of 1,400 Hurricanes were constructed at an astonishing rate of 20 per week. This was enough to replace the total losses of the Battle of Britain twice over. MacGill also designed a ‘winterised’ Hurricane, adapting rubberized electro-thermal de-icing strips for wing and tail surfaces.
After the war, MacGill became a technical advisor to the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization. She also began using her reputation to advance the cause of women’s rights. In 1967, she was named to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, and in 1971, she created the National Action Committee to ensure that the recommendations of the Royal Commission were upheld by the Government. According to her colleague, Dr. Lorna Marsden, Elsie MacGill’s tireless efforts to improve the safety of aircraft and to advance the cause of women’s rights, “changed the nature of this country legally, economically and certainly in terms of quality of life.”
The fully restored Fairchild Super 71 prototype, which Elsie MacGill helped to build, is on permanent display in the Brandon Avenue zone at the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada.
We’re also excited to have the Elsie MacGill commemorative collector keepsake set in our gift shop, the Landing Zone Boutique. Stop by and pick up yours for just $24.95.
Meet some of the other notable women we’re celebrating for Women’s History Month:
Among the first commercial female pilots in Canada, Lorna deBlicquy broke down barriers and served as a tireless advocate for women in aviation.
Born in Port Perry, Ontario, deBlicquy earned her pilot’s license at 16. In 1953, she applied to fly for Taylor Airways in Wabowden, Manitoba. Though initially rejected, when the pilot hired for the job saw the primitive working conditions and turned back, deBlicquy was reluctantly hired.
Lorna later returned to Ontario and accumulated over 6,000 flying hours as a commercial pilot and flight instructor. However, when she applied to fly for Air Transit in the 1970s, she was rejected for having insufficient experience. This prompted deBlicquy to campaign against discriminatory hiring practices in aviation.
deBlicquy’s accomplishments earned her multiple honours and awards, including the Trans-Canada (McKee) Trophy and the Order of Canada.
In 1974, while flying for Winnipeg-based airline Transair, Rosella Bjornson became the first woman in North America to serve as First Officer on a jet airliner. She later became a Captain with Canadian Airlines and Air Canada, retiring in 2004 after 31 years as an airline pilot.
Another CAHF inductee, Bjornson is also credited with organizing the University of Calgary Flying Club. She also paved the way for female pilots to fly while pregnant. During her second pregnancy in 1984, she underwent negotiations with Transport Canada. Subsequent to this, regulations were changed so that pregnant pilots were allowed to fly with doctor’s supervision.
In 2014, Bjornson received recognition for her all her contributions to aviation and was featured on a Canada Post stamp.
Robyn Shlachetka and Raven Beardy
In 2018, Robyn Shlachetka and co-pilot Raven Beardy made headlines as the province’s first female Indigenous medevac flight crew.
Born in Wabowden, Manitoba, Shlachetka spent her childhood helping her father, a pilot for Cross Lake Air Service Ltd, refuel and maintain his aircraft. In 2005 she obtained her pilot’s license and worked for Skyward Aviation and Perimeter Aviation, facing many challenges including being grounded by a heart condition. Finally, in 2011 she was hired as a medevac pilot for Missinippi Airways, Manitoba’s first indigenous-owned airline.
This Women’s History Month, learn more about these—and other—female aviation heroes. Our gift shop has great books about female aviation heroes.
‘Lady on a Pedestal’ by Gordon Bartsch details the true story of Dawn Bartsch who earned the right to fly the Big Dipper in northern Canada during the Klondike gold rush route as captain.
‘Air-Crazy’ by Elizabeth Gillan Muir features many female Canadian aviators, including some of the ones outlined above. It tells stories of their courage and determination in seeking to advance Canadian aviation.
Authored by Shirley Render, ‘No Place for a Lady’ is “the first book ever written about Canada’s women pilots.”
Aviation communities and scholarships
The recent ‘Girls in Aviation Day’ event hosted at our museum showed us how much enthusiasm there is among young women for aviation and aerospace-related careers. Unfortunately, cost can be a barrier for many. Flight training and training for complementary professions do not come cheap.
The Canadian 99s is another organization that offers scholarships for student pilots. And Air Canada funds the Captain Judy Cameron Scholarship which targets young women in pursuit of non-traditional aviation careers.
This October, we salute these women—and others—who have opened doors and created opportunities for those who come before them. Happy Women’s History Month!