The Queen Of The Hurricanes

Engineering isn’t just about inventing new things. Sometimes, it is all about doing things better, cheaper and faster. That was what Elsie MacGill did for the “Hurricane” fighter plane in World War II, earning her the nickname of “Queen of the Hurricanes”.

Elsie Gregory MacGill / Library and Archives Canada [Public domain]
Elizabeth MacGill was born in Vancouver in 1905, part of a prominent banking family and the daughter of a pioneering judge who had long campaigned for the rights of women and children. She was home-schooled and showed an aptitude for fixing things from an early age. She studied at the University of Toronto starting in 1923, becoming the first Canadian woman to earn an engineering degree, despite contracting polio two weeks before her final exams. After graduation, she worked at an engineering firm and decided to specialize in the new field of aeronautical engineering. While working days at the engineering company, she also earned a masters degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan in 1927, the first awarded to a woman in North America.

In 1938 she submitted a paper to the Royal Aeronautical Society called “Simplified Performance Calculations for Aeroplanes”, which was widely praised. This paper detailed several ingenious ways to simplify the complex calculations that determined how an aircraft would perform, which were all still done by hand at the time. In the same year, she joined the Canadian Car and Foundry company (known as CanCar) as the chief engineer at their new airplane factory in Thunder Bay. Here, she designed a new bi-wing training aircraft called the Maple Leaf II to train new pilots: it was very hard to stall and easy to recover in a spin. This was also one of the first planes to include an anti-spin parachute that could be deployed to increase drag and help the pilot recover. Although MacGill did not have a pilots license herself, she went on the first test flight of every one of the planes she worked on, a sure vote of confidence in her own abilities.

The biggest challenge came in 1940 when the company was awarded the contract to build Hurricane fighters for the Canadian and UK air force. CanCar was sent the blueprints for the plane, but the war meant that they were not shipped any of the tooling and production line equipment. That meant they had to take the designs and create a production line completely from scratch.

It was a huge challenge, and it wasn’t helped by newspapers which declared that, because cars were rolling off production lines, airplanes should be able to do the same without delay. However, the design of airplanes at the time was not standardized: every part was custom and required a dedicated production system. While cars were made of standard, stamped metal parts, airplanes were made of custom designed, hand-drilled parts. MacGill wrote a paper on the issues, declaring that:

“To afford cheapness and rapid reproduction the majority of parts must be manufactured by machines. Presses must supplant jigs. Manual labour, skilled and unskilled, must be reduced to a minimum… The production engineer cannot, at will, put any commodity on a mass production basis. Aeroplanes are not like baby carriages. The easy acceptance of the applicability of mass production methods to aeroplane construction arises from sad ignorance of the problems involved.”

In other words, making airplanes is complicated, and making them in large numbers is even more complicated because everything is customized.

To add to these issues, few of the workers on the production line had any engineering or production experience, most having only just come into the factory with the start of the war effort. By the time production was running at full speed, over 4500 people were working on the production line.

MacGill rose to the challenge, creating a state of the art production line from scratch within a year. After two years, the factory was producing over 100 Hurricanes a month. Meanwhile, she also added to the design of the airplane, designing and building the first de-icer on a fast fighter and adding an option for skis that allowed it to land on snow and ice: essential for the cold eastern front of the war. Given that the company had to start from scratch, that’s a considerable achievement, and the planes that came off this line were used in combat around the world.

Her genius lay in understanding how to create a production line when every part of the design was bespoke, to break down the process to the smallest possible step and automate as much as possible. In an era before the emergence of modern large-scale production line techniques, her insight is striking. She understood that design and production are not the same things, and that they can often be at cross purposes. The set of skills that a design engineer might need are very different from those required by a production engineer, but both are equally important to the end product.

Her contribution to the war effort was immortalized in a comic book that named her as “The Queen of the Hurricanes” (PDF link). After the war, MacGill set up her own consultancy company, advising aeronautical companies on how to learn the same lessons of scaling production she struggled with during the war. She also became an advocate for the rights of women, joining the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada in the late 1960’s, and heading many groups that promoted the work of women in science and industry. She continued to advocate for the role of women in these fields until her death in 1980, and has inspired a generation of women to work in these industries.

20 thoughts on “The Queen Of The Hurricanes

  1. That comic book is a remarkable artifact of its time. “Miss MacGill, why do you want to work here at the Austin Aircraft Company?” “You’re offering the most pay! I’m half Scotch you know!”

    Elsie led an inspiring life. Thanks for the article!

    1. Judging by what numerous kids in the fam bring home for homework, the most important thing in Canadian history was the Riel rebellion and plight and daily life of the Metis, I swear they spend years on it and skim over everything else. (I know it’s maybe in the top 10 but damn they do dwell on it, like it’s the only thing that ever happened.)

      1. As someone who lived just south of the Manitoba/Saskatchewan borders, I was familiar with the Metis, but had not heard of Louis Riel. I hope the Wikipedia articles about him are accurate.

        1. There’s an illustrated novel about Louis Riel by Chester Brown that’s probably at the sweet spot of completeness and accessibility, if you want to dive in a bit deeper than Wikipedia but still have some summer left.

  2. Massive respect to her, but I have to question the statement she went on the first test flight of every one of the planes she worked on. I assume it is based on this quote “I accompanied the pilots on all test flights – even the dangerous first flight – of any aircraft I worked on” In 1940 when this quote was made she was the designer of one aircraft – the Maple Leaf II. She definitely did go up on the first flight of the prototype. Conceiveably she might have worked on the Maple Leaf I and possibly flew in one, but the Hurricanes Cancar produced were single seaters so she wasn’t going up in those. I can only conclude that for some reason being a talented polio beating first woman engineer advanced degree holding factory building plane designer wasn’t seen as impressive enough, so someone back in the 40s massaged her statement to add an unecessary touch of implied ongoing derring-do to her objectively impressive acheivements.

    1. Naxes, your mistake is just that you didn’t understand all the English, and didn’t detect the problem.

      You’re mistaking the phrase “worked on” in the context of being a design engineer with “worked on” as in, did some sort of work in relation to the thing.

      English is definitely more complicated than engineering. To those who disagree, I urge you: continue parsing the word “complicated” a bit longer! Consider all the definitions before being sure of your answer.

      It is the difference between, “Wait, what?” and “Yer Rong!” When something seems off to you, which one is it more likely you have evidence of: Your own confusion, or the other person being incorrect?

      You lose a lot of available content in written material if you don’t turn over those points of confusion to find the intended meaning that is not contradictory; writers work hard at that part and a careful reader will be rewarded for their efforts.

  3. It’s probably because of my background in meteorology…
    but even with the aircraft in the banner art,
    I was thinking this would be an article about a weather pioneer.

    (a lot of weather research was conducted using WWII aircraft, a plane built to withstand flak and bullets was also good at withstanding windshear and hail)

    1. I was hoping for some weather science and all I got was this aerospace surgery.

      But adding a custom deicer at the factory, the first on a fast fighter, that’s definitely a hack!

  4. What an inspiring woman.
    Thanks for sharing, otherwise I would never have heard of her.
    This is the kind of stuff we need to get out there to inspire women to take up STEM careers.

    1. I agree. I hope stories like this inspire people who are intimidated by STEM to become interested, though. STEM makes tools available that have applications in careers across the board. It doesn’t matter to me who they are. Working as an engineer I see the value in diverse opinions and perspectives every day. In my opinion, “diversity” for the sake of diversity has less value.

  5. Women, during the Second World War, were quiet heroes. Whether it was housewives turning into production specialists, or flying new aircraft from North America to the UK, or performing non-combat tasks that freed up men to do other work.

    Then you have numerous women, and men, who suffered from various health challenges and yet performed very special and important tasks during the war.

    War time even reduced (overcame?) racism.

    Sadly, prewar conditions were often adopted post-war. We, men and women of today, owe them a debt of gratitude. But a seed had been planted.

    The recent movies of three women who worked in key positions with NASA who directly contributed to the space effort initiated by President John Kennedy.

    In my life I have often hired females. I worked for a company whose executive were openly sexist, so I identified the job applicants who met our needs using symbols such as Circle, Square, Oblong, Oval, etc. I made my choice and I submitted the applicants resumes to the executive for confirmation.

    They, too, confirmed my choice. On the day the successful applicant started work, I was called in to the executive suite and asked who is SHE.

    SHE later was hired by Northern Telecom as a senior engineer and later filled a similar position with HuaWei.

    Women are equally skilled as men and, in my opinion, have skills few men possess.

    1. After WWII, a hispanic man entered a cafe in Longmont, Colorado.
      The owner of the cafe said something to the effect of “we don’t serve your kind here!”
      Other patrons stood up and said something like, “he was good enough to fight with us, I guess you don’t want our kind either!” and began to walk out.
      The owner changed his mind that day…

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