Elsie MacGill - A Life of "Firsts"
In 1938, a Canadian named Elizabeth “Elsie” MacGill became the world’s first female chief aeronautical engineer. Even while battling challenges—both personal and professional—she had already accumulated a unique list of firsts during her career: the first Canadian woman to obtain an electrical engineering degree (Toronto, 1927), the first woman in North America to earn a degree in aeronautical engineering (Toronto, 1929), the first woman to design an aircraft, and the first to be accepted into the Engineering Institute of Canada.
Elsie Muriel Gregory MacGill, chef engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry Co. Ltd.Canada Aviation and Space Museum
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.
Hawker Hurricane XII, at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. (ca. 1940)Canada Aviation and Space Museum
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.
Cover, True Comics, “Queen of the Hurricanes, Elsie MacGill” (January 1942)Canada Aviation and Space Museum
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”.
Challenges and triumphs
MacGill was a polio survivor, contracting the disease in May of 1929. Though doctors told her she may never walk again, she worked hard to regain the use of her legs. She eventually walked using canes.
Excerpt, True Comics, “Queen of the Hurricanes, Elsie MacGill” (January 1942)Canada Aviation and Space Museum
A 1930s Ford Roadster, similar to the car Elsie MacGill drove. (1932) by Ford Motor Company of Canada LTDCanada Aviation and Space Museum
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.
A Fairchild Super 71, tested by Elsie MacGill (1938)Canada Aviation and Space Museum
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.
Maple Leaf II, a training aircraft designed by Elsie MacGill, in production. (1938)Canada Aviation and Space Museum
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.
Elsie MacGill in front of the Maple Leaf II trainer. (1938)Canada Aviation and Space Museum
The Maple Leaf II first flew in 1939, with MacGill as passenger.
The First Canadian-made Hawker Hurricane. (ca. 1940s)Canada Aviation and Space Museum
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.
Soon after the Second World War began in Europe, CCF was selected by the Royal Air Force and the RCAF to manufacture Hawker Hurricane fighters.
Assembly process documentation for the Hawker Hurricane (1940) by UnkonwnCanada Aviation and Space Museum
MacGill was in charge of developing the mass-production processes required to build over a thousand aircraft in a short period of time.
Assembly process documentation for the Hawker Hurricane (1940)Canada Aviation and Space Museum
Canadian Aviation magazine featuring the first Canadian-made Hawker Hurricane. (February 1940) by Thorp-Hambrock Co. LtdCanada Aviation and Space Museum
The first Hurricane flew in January 1940, with modifications designed by MacGill to equip the fighter for cold-weather flying.
Crowd surrounding the first Canadian-made Hawker Hurricane. (1940) by UnknownCanada Aviation and Space Museum
Crowds came to see the Hurricane off—the first of many.
engineer, who happens to be a woman
Under MacGill’s watch, Canadian Car and Foundry produced more than 1,400 Hurricanes between 1940 and 1943.
A member of the RCAF Women's Division does welding work on an aircraft. (ca. 1940s)Canada Aviation and Space Museum
To meet the demand, the plant’s workforce was expanded from around 500 to over 4,500 people — more than half of them women.
Hawker Hurricane assembly, Canadian Car & Foundry. (1941) by UnknownCanada Aviation and Space Museum
Even with these dramatic changes, few women were in managerial positions, making Elsie a popular figure in newspapers and magazines.
A woman working in the cockpit area of a Bristol Bolingbroke at a Fairchild Aircraft factory. (1942) by UnknownCanada Aviation and Space Museum
Her work was covered extensively throughout the early 1940s.
Hawker Hurricanes flying in formation, Second World War. (ca. 1940s)Canada Aviation and Space Museum
Though her work was focused on the war, Elsie considered it a major step towards peace.
Breaking the Circle (Hawker Hurricanes in flight) (1982) by Frank WoottonCanada Aviation and Space Museum
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".
From factory to committee
When production of the Hawker Hurricane ended in mid-1943, Elsie MacGill was known to the public as the “Queen of the Hurricanes”.
Female employees of Canadian Car and Foundry working on the Curtiss SBW Helldiver. (1943) by Ken JohnsonCanada Aviation and Space Museum
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.
Curtiss SBW Helldiver in production at Canadian Car & Foundry. (1943) by UnknownCanada Aviation and Space Museum
The slow production contributed to her dismissal from in 1943.
Canadair North Star, one of Elsie’s consulting projects. (ca. 1940s) by UnknownCanada Aviation and Space Museum
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.
Elizabeth “Elsie” MacGill. (1941)Canada Aviation and Space Museum
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.
A female worker assembling aircraft parts. (ca. 1940)Canada Aviation and Space Museum
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.
MacGill was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 1992Canada Aviation and Space Museum
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