Queen of the Hurricanes
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Queen of the Hurricanes
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Queen of the Hurricanes
Elsie MacGill leads Canada's fighter plane production during the Second World War
In the early years of Second World War, fighter planes were in short supply. So Canada's war machine turned to a small northern Ontario town and an exceptional person named Elsie MacGill.
Elsie MacGill became a war hero - a symbol of Canada's wartime economic transformation. A comic book, called Queen of the Hurricanes, was devoted to her exploits. (National Archives of Canada, MG 31 K7 16 file 7)
Elsie MacGill became a war hero - a symbol of Canada's wartime economic transformation. A comic book, called Queen of the Hurricanes, was devoted to her exploits. (National Archives of Canada, MG 31 K7 16 file 7)

MacGill worked for the Canadian Car and Foundry Company (CanCar) in Fort William, Ontario (now Thunder Bay). The company primarily manufactured railway boxcars but now the Allies) needed Hawker Hurricane airplanes and quickly.

The daunting task fell to Elsie MacGill. The 35-year-old Canadian was one of the country's top aeronautical engineers, a field dominated by men. Before the war, MacGill had designed and tested training airplanes. In 1940, she had to turn CanCar into an airplane assembly line.

Thousands of aircraft blueprints were brought in from Britain. From them MacGill designed the machines that would manufacture 60,000 different parts. Each part had to be perfect.

"They were designed so the parts would fit together like a childs mecanno set (toy building set). Parts from one airframe are interchangeable with those of another. You can see how useful this would be when they are repairing an airplane damaged in action. "

MacGill also oversaw the retraining of hundreds of inexperienced workers at the factory.

For MacGill the job was another in a series of life-long challenges. Born in British Columbia, MacGill was the first woman to graduate in electrical engineering form the University of Toronto and the first to receive a master's degree in aeronautics from the University of Michigan. Her mother was the first female judge in British Columbia and her grandmother was a prominent suffragist.

In her early 20s, MacGill was struck with polio and doctors told her that she would probably spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. She refused to accept their prognosis and forced herself to learn to walk again with two strong metal canes. To help pay her doctor bills, she wrote magazine articles about planes and flying.
One of Canada's top aeronautical engineers, Elsie MacGill was in charge of fighter plane construction at the Canadian Car and Foundry Company in Fort William, Ontario.
One of Canada's top aeronautical engineers, Elsie MacGill was in charge of fighter plane construction at the Canadian Car and Foundry Company in Fort William, Ontario.

Under MacGill's direction, it took only a year for CanCar to produce the first Hawker Hurricane. Soon the company was building three or four planes a week and had become a wartime success story.

MacGill oversaw a staff of 4,500. She also designed a series of modifications to equip the Hurricanes for cold weather flying.

By the end of the war, one of out every ten Hurricane fighters - 2,000 in all - had been built by CanCar.

MacGill became a war hero -- a symbol of the miracle of Canadas economic wartime transformation. A comic book, called Queen of the Hurricanes, was devoted to her exploits in January 1942.

"War effort is a man staying and working an extra hour, or two or five hours a day," said MacGill. "It is a woman cutting short her noon hour to get back to finish the job; it is someone taking home his problems to solve them after dinner; it is someone coming back in the evening to finish an assignment. War effort is something, which is as microscopic in the unit as the individual, but as mighty in the sum total as an army."

After the war, MacGill worked in aeronautical consulting and was active in women's rights issues such as paid maternity leave and the liberalization of abortion laws. She was named to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1967. She died in 1980

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