Meet Elsie MacGill - engineer, businesswoman, advocate for women's rights... and the first female aviation engineer in the world.
Her accomplishments in the engineering field are mirrored by her work as a leader in the Women’s rights movement, and major contributor to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada from 1967 to 1970.
MacGill was responsible for the mass production of the Hawker Hurricane.
This single-seat monoplane was flown in thousands of battle outings by Canadian pilots, fighting in both the RAF and the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Though her story is known to aviation enthusiasts in Canada, her contributions to technology and society extend far past the brief period where she was affectionately known as “The Queen of the Hurricanes”.
Fiercely independent, despite her physical disability, Elsie continued to drive her Ford Roadster, lifting her bad leg with her hands to push in the clutch.
Following her recovery, MacGill entered the private aviation industry in 1934.
She took a job in Montreal at Fairchild Aircraft Ltd. As assistant to the Chief Aeronautical engineer, she was involved in designing and stress testing new aircraft.
In 1938, MacGill became chief aeronautical engineer at Canadian Car & Foundry (CCF) in Fort William (now Thunder Bay) where she was asked to design a basic trainer for use in Mexico.
The Maple Leaf II first flew in 1939, with MacGill as passenger.
Unfortunately, CCF’s desire to also sell the airplane to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) did not materialize — but with the outbreak of the Second World War, new challenges would overtake this disappointment.
MacGill was in charge of developing the mass-production processes required to build over a thousand aircraft in a short period of time.
The first Hurricane flew in January 1940, with modifications designed by MacGill to equip the fighter for cold-weather flying.
Crowds came to see the Hurricane off—the first of many.
To meet the demand, the plant’s workforce was expanded from around 500 to over 4,500 people — more than half of them women.
Even with these dramatic changes, few women were in managerial positions, making Elsie a popular figure in newspapers and magazines.
Her work was covered extensively throughout the early 1940s.
Though her work was focused on the war, Elsie considered it a major step towards peace.
In a 1940 article for The Engineering Journal, MacGill wrote:
"The challenge of winning the war was thrown directly to the Canadian engineer…
"We are working, not just for the satisfaction of winning the fight for our side, but for the glory of hastening peace to the world".
Despite her success on the Hurricane project, MacGill’s next task—producing the Curtiss SBW Helldiver at CFF—was plagued by design problems beyond her control.
The slow production contributed to her dismissal from in 1943.
After leaving CFF, MacGill opened an office in Toronto as an aeronautical consultant—another first for a Canadian woman.
She worked for many different projects, including the conversion of the military transport airplane Douglas DC-4 into a civilian aircraft.
In the '50s, she became increasingly involved in campaigning for women’s issues like day care and maternity leave.
She was appointed commissioner on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada in 1967, and was among the most respected women engineers in Canada when she died age 75.
During her professional life, MacGill felt her share of pushback from the established organizations of the male-dominated engineering profession.
To counter this, she joined professional societies and organisations, working towards legal and social reform.
As an engineer, business owner, published author, and outspoken advocate for women’s rights,
MacGill’s story continues to inspire Canadians today.
Her awards include induction into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame, induction in Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, four honorary doctorates, the Engineering Institute of Canada Gzowski Medal, and induction into the Order of Canada.
Canada Aviation and Space Museum, 2018