The month of March is often considered to be ‘Women’s History’ month, largely because International Women’s Day (IWD) is on 8th March, and doubtless there will be plenty of listicles of ‘top women’ or ‘first women’ in this or that field. Lists of women who are or have been significant in aviation generally focus on the famous European and American pioneering flyers, such as Amy Johnson, Amelia Earhart, Valentina Tereshkova or Bessie Coleman. IWD 2021’s theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’, so for this guest blog I have chosen to challenge the commonplace lists of women pilots. Instead I offer a list of 10 women who have done significant work in aeronautical engineering of various kinds, in alphabetical order, mainly women of the past but starting off with a living example.
By Nina Baker, engineering historian
Jenny Body, CBE, FRS, FRAeS
Jenny Body was the first woman to become president of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 2013. This society, perhaps because its history is so associated with a ‘new’ industry, was for decades the only professional body to admit women as members, even if it took a while longer for one to become its president. Jenny Body came from an engineering family and benefited from the combination of practical and academic training as an undergraduate apprentice with British Aerospace and Imperial College. Whilst in BAE’s avionics group she created the software for fly-by-wire aircraft. She worked on wing development as lead for the A400M team and established the Next Generation Composite Wing Programme, and in 2002 became engineering lead of the Nimrod wing design team. She was technical manager for wing assembly and retired from Airbus in 2010.
Her work both on the technical side and also her work in support of other women in her field have gained her a CBE, as well as many prestigious fellowships and an honorary doctorate.
Interestingly, Airbus’s lead engineer on the A380 wing design was another woman, Sue Partridge, who is now head of its ‘Wing of Tomorrow Programme’.
Madame Carlotta Bollée (née Messinisi) (c.1880-?)
Madame Carlotta Bollée is included here, to represent the many women who were ‘engineers by marriage’, like Bertha Benz, or by other family relationships, like Ella Pilcher who helped her brother Percy build his experimental planes, in an era when technical education and opportunities were largely closed to women. Many intelligent wives of prominent engineers assisted their husbands, learned engineering informally and unobtrusively.
She was born in Greece and married Léon Bollée, an early automobile designer who was from an old and large family of engineers. Her connection with aviation started in June 1908 when Wilbur Wright arrived in France, from the USA, with his plane. The Wright Flyer had been shipped to Le Havre by Orville the previous year, but had been seriously damaged when it arrived in France and was uncrated. Wilbur spent the whole summer of 1908 rebuilding the machine and getting it into flying condition and was invited to stay with the Bollées, whose reputation as friendly and hospitable made a great impression on the Wright family. Léon had offered him space in his car factory to re-assemble and repair his aeroplane (which had been damaged, possibly sabotaged, in transit) and was also making him two aeroengines. Wilbur and Orville Wright’s famous first flight had been at Kitty Hawk, USA in 1903 and the trip to France was largely to demonstrate the safety and reliability of their plane.
Wilbur and Léon did not speak each other’s languages so Carlotta acted as their interpreter as the technical chat went back and forth over several weeks. She was fluent in Greek, French and English and must have acquired sufficient technical knowledge via her husband to make accurate translations. She was pregnant with her daughter at the time, so all these late night engineering discussions must have been tiring. Wilbur promised that his first flight in France would be on the day her baby was expected, 8th August 1908. Baby Elisabeth actually arrived on the following day and Wilbur became her godfather.
For the rest of that summer, autumn and winter Wilbur Wright flew numerous times, generally taking a passenger with him. Bearing in mind that this was not a question of climbing into the cockpit from the ground but of climbing a tower from which the plane was suspended, we can understand why Carlotta waited until October before venturing aloft. The tower was a means of launching the plane, by a falling weight acting as a catapult. Her flight was typical of many, at an altitude of about 25m and lasting about 4 minutes.
Léon Bollée was president of l’Aéro-Club de la Sarthe, and following a flying accident in 1911, he never recovered and, even before he died in 1913, Carlotta had taken over the running of the Bollée engineering works. She ran the company successfully until she sold it to the British car company, Morris, in 1924. When Wilbur Wright also died prematurely in 1912, Carlotta kept in touch with Orville and his family and in 1920 travelled to their home in the USA to give them an album and memorabilia of Wilbur’s time with the Bollée family. In 1927 she donated an engine, which Wilbur and Léon had assembled from the 2 sent out from the USA, to the Museum of Le Mans. We do not know when Carlotta died.
Anne Burns (nee Pellew) BSc ( 23 November 1915 – 22 January 2001)
Burns was an aeronautical engineer and glider pilot, who became the world expert in ‘Clear Air Turbulence’ and its effects on aircraft safety. She gained a 1st class degree in engineering science from Oxford University (1936) and then joined the Structures and Mechanical Department at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough, Hampshire (1940), remaining there for her full career. She became expert in ‘flutter’ and clear air turbulence, was the first flight test engineer to use strain gauges and was involved in the investigations into the Comet disasters (1950s).
It is easy now to forget how dangerous flying was even by the mid-20th century. Burns was part of the first generation of aeronautical engineers who applied stringent mathematics and physics principles to test airframes for safety. Many military and civilian planes had design faults which only became apparent when ‘unexplained’ disasters befell them. It was Burns’ life work to find the explanations for such problems as ‘flutter” and the disastrous Comet airliner crashes. As a flight test engineer observer she had to fly in many planes known to be dangerous, whilst monitoring her innovative strain gauges. In the 1960s she became known world wide for her expertise and daring in seeking out clear air turbulence and studying the problems which airframes can experience.
Awarded the Queen’s Commendation for her bravery and contribution to Comet investigation (1955); R.P. Alston Medal by the Royal Aeronautical Society for this work (1958); Royal Aeronautical Society Silver Medal for Aeronautics (1966); Whitney Straight Award for her services to aeronautical research and flying (1968).
The now out-of-print biography of her life and work Clear Air Turbulence: A Life of Anne Burns by Matthew Freudenberg is worth hunting down.
Hilda Margaret Lyon MA., MSc., AFRAeS. (31st May 1896- 2nd December 1946)
Yorkshirewoman Hilda Lyon was of a generation of women who became engineers through their mathematical talents. Her mathematics degree from Newnham College, Cambridge in 1918 led to work as a technical assistant at Siddeley Deasy Motor company in Coventry, and then George Parnall & Co, Bristol aircraft manufacturer. In 1925 she joined the Royal Airship Works in Cardington, to work on the design and stress calculations of the R101’s transverse framing. She was soon considered an expert in this and the Aeronautical Journal published her first, and very important, paper on the strength of transverse frames of rigid airships in 1930. This won her the first R38 Memorial Prize to be awarded to a woman by the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Her experience with the design process of the R101 made her realise that wind tunnel testing, at that time, produced results that did not match real life. So she went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she got her first independent access to wind tunnels, enabling her to carefully eliminate the errors caused by turbulence due to model support wires etc. The outcome was her finding that airships could actually be less pointed at the front with no effect on air resistance. Decades later this discovery led to what is now known as the ‘Lyon Shape’, which is the basis for the shape of the American submarine USS Albacore, as well as many subsequent US submarines, and those of many other nations. She gained an MA for her thesis on The Effect of Turbulence on the Drag of Airship Models.
That work took her next to Göttingen in Germany, where she conducted aerodynamics research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft für Strömungsforschung with Ludwig Prandtl for about 18 months.
Unemployed but still working on her research from 1933-37, she published 2 papers on streamlining and boundary layer effects in 1934 and two more, on wing flutter, in 1935 before the RAE employed her in its aerodynamics department in 1937. From 1937 onwards she was publishing frequently, mainly as official reports, up to and even after her death. Her war work included stability analysis of the Hurricane’s rudder and she was part of the post-war team which visited Germany to assess and retrieve aeronautical equipment and experts.
Her 1942 report on ‘A theoretical analysis of longitudinal dynamic stability in gliding flight’ was considered seminal and continues to be cited in various fields relating to streamlining and motion in fluids as well as contributing to the understanding of how to inhibit the dangerous ‘phugoid motion’ in aircraft.
In 1946 she died following an operation and is buried in her home town, Market Weighton in Yorkshire, where this now a commemorative blue plaque on her childhood home.
Elizabeth Muriel Gregory ‘Elsie’ MacGill, OC (March 27, 1905 – November 4, 1980)
Canadian Elsie MacGill is thought to have been the first woman to get a Master’s degree in aeronautical engineering (1929). This, with her first degree, in electrical engineering, equipped her to get her first job, as an assistant aeronautical engineer at Fairchild’s Aircraft company. In 1942 she moved, to become Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry.
This meant she was the only woman in the world with such a senior post in the industry, initially designing the Maple Leaf trainer and then massively ramping up the factory’s production and efficiency to take on a huge wartime contract building Hawker Hurricanes. For use in Canada’s harsh winters, MacGill had to design de-icing improvements for the Hurricanes. Her role was high profile and the print media of the time nicknamed her ‘Queen of the Hurricanes’. Following her marriage to colleague Bill Soulsby in 1943 they were both dismissed from the company and set up an aeronautical engineering consultancy together. She has been honoured posthumously as one of the first inductees in the Women in Aviation, International’s (WAI) Pioneer Hall of Fame.
Bourgeois-Doyle’s 2008 biography, ‘Her Daughter the Engineer: The Life of Elsie Gregory MacGill’ is worth reading, not least for the extraordinary story of her mother’s life too.
Beryl Catherine Platt (née Myatt), Baroness Platt of Writtle CBE DL FRSA FREng HonFIMechE (18 April 1923 – 1 February 2015)
Baroness Beryl Platt was of the generation of women for whom the Second World War opened up a brief window of opportunity in engineering, only for the ‘marriage bar’ to shut it again. Her mathematical talent took her from Westcliff High School for Girls to Girton College Cambridge, to pass the mechanical science tripos with honours (1943) under the wartime accelerated degree programme. Cambridge of course did not at that time actually award the degrees which women had earned. The same programme directed her into aeronautical engineering at Hawker Aircraft Ltd, as a technical assistant in the experimental flight section of the Design Office. Her work analysed data from test flights of fighter planes, including the Hurricane. In 1946 she became a technical assistant in the performance and analysis section of British European Airways’ Project Department, testing new aircraft and ensuring compliance with UK and international safety regulations. However, in 1949 she married and the convention of those times was that married women retired from their paid employment. She then started a political career, rising from parish councillor to the House of Lords and chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Although her own career as an engineer had been brief, she did a lot to support the opportunities for women in engineering, in particular setting up the Women Into Science and Engineering Year in 1984. Her eminent career in support of equal opportunities for women and technical engineering education led to many honorary doctorates, the CBE in 1978 and the Freedom of the City of London in 1988.
Beatrice Shilling BEng, Msc, PhD, CEng, HonMWES (Mrs Naylor) (8th March 1909-18th November 1990)
She is principally celebrated today for her WW2 role in solving the carburettor problems of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines used in the Spitfires and Hurricanes, leading to her invention of the “RAE Restrictor” or, less officially, “Miss Shilling’s Orifice”.
However that was just one of many engineering jobs she was given at the Royal Aircraft Establishment. With the post-WW2 advent of the jet engine, her previous specialism in piston engines was less useful and she was asked to design, specify and commission a new High Altitude Test Plant to enable the testing of the ancilliary equipment for the new jet planes, including their hydraulics, fuel systems and cabin pressurisation equipment. These were all critical now that all planes, both civil and military, were flying faster and much higher. She also worked on the early rocket engines, in particular the fuel delivery systems which had to provide two fuels in very precise quantities at precise timings such as to control the explosive forces involved. Next she joined the many teams working on Cold War era guided weapons, including the ramjet engines for missiles, such as her work on the Blue Streak’s ‘boil-off’ of fuel during launch.
More high-profile than this top secret work was the investigation she led into the Munich air crash which killed the Manchester United footballers. Her expertise on cold weather problems meant she was able to exonerate the pilot who had been blamed for the crash, as it was actually due to runway slush dragging the plane’s speed down below that safe for take off. This work in the 1960s led her to become an expert in the interactions between tyres and runways at higher speeds and NASA consulted her before her compulsory retirement in 1969.
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Melitta Schenk Gräfin von Stauffenberg (née Schiller) (3 January 1903 – 8 April 1945)
Clare Mulley’s book, ‘The Women Who Flew For Hitler’ covers her life in detail, along with that of her contemporary but complete opposite, the Nazi Hannah Reitsch. Although this lumps them together and although they came from the same region, the two women could not have been more different. Reitsch was a devoted Nazi, right to the bitter end, but von Stauffenberg with her privileged background partially hiding (even from her initially) some Jewish ancestry was in a social milieu of secret hostility to the Nazis. Mulley’s excellent book describes them as the only female test pilots in Nazi Germany but almost certainly they were the only ones outside of the USSR at that time. The reason I include von Stauffenberg is the other key difference between the two women. Both were very talented test pilots with thousands of hours of risky flying to their names, but only von Stauffenberg, with her cum laude (meaning in the top 30% of the class) engineering degree, was an aeronautical engineer who could do all her own test flight analysis and design changes. When her husband’s involvement in the 20th July Plot to assassinate Hitler came to light, it was only her aeronautical engineering work that protected the family to a great extent. This impelled her to work harder and harder on her test flight work, to protect them. She became the technical director of the Versuchsstelle für Flugsondergeräte (Test center for special flight devices). She was unfortunately shot down by the USAF when she was flying in Bavaria to try to find and rescue her imprisoned husband. She died from her wounds in April 1945.
Johanna Weber Dr. Rer. Nat. (8 August 1910 – 24 October 2014)
Dr Johanna Weber, was one of the foremost aerodynamicists of her generation and contributed significantly to the design of the Concorde and other supersonic swept-wing aircraft.
Born in Düsseldorf, Germany she lost her father in the First World War, making her eligible for financial support for her education and graduated Dr. rer. nat. (a first degree but to doctoral level, in natural philosophy or physics) with first-class honours in 1935. She then did teacher training but was barred from such work due to not joining the Nazis. Rather oddly, this did not apparently bar her from work in armaments. She first did ballistics research for the Krupp company in Essen and later moved to Göttingen’s Aerodynamics Research Institute (Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt Göttingen) in 1939.
This started her career-long work with aerodynamicist Dietrich Küchemann in Germany and later in UK.
At the end of the War, the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) recruited Küchemann and Weber, probably on the reccommendation of Hilda Lyon who wrote the report covering their work. Her initial work at RAE was in Frances Bradfield’s Low Speed Wind Tunnels division, on air intake cowlings for jet engines, on which she co-authored a series of papers. The work for which she is more remembered today was on wing design, showing that a thin delta wing could generate sufficient lift to for take-off and landing for supersonic planes. Her concepts were implemented in the iconic Concorde, VC10 airliner and Airbus A300B designs. She retired from the RAE in 1975 at the grade of Senior Principal Scientific Officer.
The women of the Weinling family were the first women to be employed by the UK government in a technical role connected with aviation.
When balloonists started to use hydrogen gas as the lifting agent, instead of heated air, they sought a material that would be impermeable to the hydrogen’s tiny molecules. No such a fabric became available until the 1920s. In the meantime the solution was a product known as ‘Goldbeaters’ Skin’. Although this was, as the name shows, a long-known product, its use for hydrogen balloons was a secret known only by the people who made the balloons for Mr Herron, the Weinling family.
Goldbeaters’ Skin is made from the outer layer of the bovine caecum, also called the blind gut or appendix. After preparation it resembles thin parchment, but when damp it sticks to itself easily ( a bit like cling film or Saran Wrap) to make larger pieces without glue or stitching. Airship gasbags usually consisted of up to seven layers of skin, needing vast quantities of the guts, most being imported in barrels from the USA. The largest airships came to require a quarter to half a million pieces.
When the family first began work at the Royal Balloon Factory, it was an era when everyone expected the head of a household to be a man and there were clearly gendered lines of whether an occupation was for men or women. Fortunately for the Weinling women, the craft of processing Goldbeaters Skin was not controlled by any guild or trades group and women had probably always done at least part of the process. Frederick Weinling senior died in 1874 so that Ann was head of the household and leading her daughters, Matilda, Elizabeth and Eugenie in the business. In 1906 Eugenie has risen to become forewoman of the balloon making workshop at the Royal factory.
During the Boer War, the gas envelopes of goldbeaters’ skin were made in significant quantities for reconnaissance balloons, in 1901, the 4th Balloon section alone required £2000 spent on making or repairing some 14 medium to very large balloons and over 100 small ‘pilot’ balloons. The Weinlings were said to guard their ‘secret’ jealously but it is clear that the family must by now have been assisted by other workers, almost certainly local working class women, as well as having to train up soldiers in field repairs.
During the First World War, with airships demanding even vaster numbers of skins made up into gas envelopes, the Weinling women were supervising significant numbers of women and there were women working at commercial airship builders. None of these women, the Weinlings or those they supervised, would probably have considered themselves to be engineers and they certainly had no formal education or training in anything that might be so recognised at the time. They are examples of the thousands of women who would never be famous in aviation but, during 2 world wars, there was no part of an aircraft that was not made by women somewhere in the UK.
The Weinlings continued their service until about 1922 when new fabrics became technically feasible for containing the hydrogen gas.