Queen of the Hurricanes focus of new Heritage Minute

A groundbreaking aeronautical engineer who oversaw the production of hundreds of Hawker Hurricane aircraft at the Canadian Car and Foundry factory (Can Car) in what is now Thunder Bay, Ont., is the focus of a new Heritage Minute.

Elsie MacGill was 33 years old when she accepted a post as chief aeronautical engineer at Can Car in 1938.

There, she oversaw the production of more than 1,400 Hawker aircraft, one of the main fighters flown in the Battle of Britain; MacGill’s work earned her the nickname “Queen of the Hurricanes.”

“Elsie MacGill was many things,” said Davida Aronovitch, director of the Heritage Minutes Program at Historica Canada. “She was a feminist, she was a polio survivor, she faced many challenges.”

“And notwithstanding those challenges, she became the first female aeronautical engineer in the world, and, in fact, Canada’s first practicing female engineer,” she said. “She accomplished a great deal.”

The Heritage Minute focusses on MacGill’s time at Can Car, Aronovitch said.

“When we’re telling stories from history, it’s so important for us to consult with many people who can help us, who are experts,” she said. “Especially when we’re dealing [with] something as highly-specialized as period aeronautical engineering.”

Aronovitch said the process starts with internal research, and reaching out to people who are experts on the subject.

In the case of the MacGill Heritage Minute, the experts were Erin Gregory, acting curator at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, Crystal Sissons, historian and author of Queen of the Hurricanes: The Fearless Elsie MacGill, and science writer Richard Bourgeois-Doyle, who’s also written a book on MacGill.

“They were essential to us in reading each iteration of the project,” Aronovitch said. “That means looking over outlines, and scripts, and cuts, to make sure that not only are we being historically accurate, but we’re representing Elsie’s career as authentically as possible.”

The Heritage Minute was released Thursday, Oct. 1, which is the beginning of Women’s History Month in Canada.

“Trailblazing women like Elsie really did break many glass ceilings, and create other opportunities for other women,” Aronovitch said. “It was almost unheard of that a 33-year-old woman would be appointed to the role of chief engineer.”

“She really laid a lot of groundwork to help normalize women in these roles of leadership in the engineering space.”

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