elsie 1943 300v maple leaf test 1940 300v 

The Maple Leaf of Mexico

By Richard I. Bourgeois-Doyle

Lying on her deathbed in November 1980, 75-year-old Elsie Gregory MacGill could think back on a life that influenced Canada in many ways. As the effective Vice-Chair of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and a leader in the manufacture of fighter aircraft during the Second World War, she had helped to change laws, advance the cause of women in education and the professions, and develop the Canadian aviation industry.

She might have even reflected on the fun and energy of her early career as an aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer. But to her last days, Elsie remained oblivious to the effect one of her projects had in another country. She was not alone.

Although her creation, the Maple Leaf Trainer II, has status as the first aircraft fully designed by a woman, its ultimate fate remains a bit of a mystery and its impact rests largely undocumented. Aviation histories that cite the aircraft periodically mention that a few trainers modeled on its design were built outside of Canada, but rarely do they speculate on the fate of the prototype. Elsie had been told that it was sold to Republic Aviation and that Republic shared it with the U.S. Navy. Documents for its export say something other, and evidence that includes declassified military reports, photographs, and inconsistencies in public statements suggest that all of this was a ruse.

The best guess now suggests that the manufacturer, Canadian Car and Foundry (Can-Car), sent the aircraft surreptitiously into Mexico where it and the others modeled on it played a unique role in the birth of that country’s modern air force.

Elsie, the aircraft’s then 34-year-old designer, beamed on the late fall day when the Maple Leaf II rolled out of the hanger at Can-Car’s Fort William plant. The project marked a high point in what had been a challenging career. Now widely recognized as the world’s first woman aeronautical engineer, because of her gender, MacGill had initially been rejected by educational and professional institutions. Nevertheless, she survived in the crucible of all-male engineering classes at the University of Toronto where, in 1927, she became the first woman in Canada to earn a degree in electrical engineering. Two years later, at Michigan, Elsie added to her firsts with a Master’s in Aeronautics, and in the early 1930s, at M.I.T., she pursued doctoral studies with pioneers in aerodynamic research. Later in the decade, the Engineering Institute of Canada admitted Elsie as its first woman member and then recognized her with its Gzowski Medal in 1940. Dozens of honours like this marked her life.

But none of the intellectual and professional challenges these accomplishments embody matched the personal one that arrived on the eve of her graduation at Michigan.

After going to bed with a flu-like cold, she woke up paralyzed from the waist down due to a form of polio that she labelled acute infectious myelitis. For three years thereafter, MacGill struggled to regain strength at her family’s Vancouver home. At first, Elsie was bed-ridden, then she moved to a wheelchair, and finally she rose to walking sticks and a cane. The ability to walk gave her the capacity to resume her engineering career, but the time in bed was not a professional waste. After a year at M.I.T., Elsie moved to the Fairchild plant in Longeuil where she conducted stress analysis and designed components for iconic Canadian bush aircraft such as the Super 71, the 45-80 Sekani, and the 82.

At Fairchild, she made contacts that brought her that job offer as Chief Aeronautical Engineer at the revived Can-Car manufacturing facilities in Fort William. Arriving there in the summer of 1938, she stepped into an operation that had been struggling. While Can-Car had showed some capability in the manufacture and even engineering of innovative aircraft (one was the first Canadian-designed fighter - the Gregor Biplane), it had not found a dependable market for its products and had even managed to offend the U.S. and Canadian governments by circumventing the arms embargo around the Spanish Civil War. A story in itself, the Can-Car manufacture and meandering Spanish sale of its version of the Grumman FF-1 fighter (the G-23/ GE-23 “Goblin”) did not affect Elsie MacGill’s career profoundly, but it helped create the ambiance of uneasy subterfuge that surrounded the eventual disposition of her own aircraft. In the year prior to Elsie’s arrival, Can-Car also produced a prototype biplane trainer based on the design work of American engineer Leland Stamford Wallace. The firm dubbed the modified aircraft the Maple Leaf Trainer I and was poised to produce a quantity for export when performance problems and poor test results forced it to scrap 1 the project.

Before this happened, however, a group of Mexican military and government officials, visiting Fort William in connection with plans to build Goblins in Mexico, saw the biplane in the Can-Car Shops and added a trainer to their aero-equipment wish list. This, along with the growing prospect of Canadian military demand, led Can-Car to task Elsie MacGill with reviving the project and designing something that would work.

In a way, Elsie had been preparing over a decade for this opportunity. Even when bed-ridden in the early 1930s, she studied, read and wrote articles for magazines and journals that not only fantasized about the ideal aircraft, but flying them herself. She understood well what needed to be done. Within a year, she and the team at Can-Car had the prototype aircraft (registered eventually as CF-BPU), The Maple Leaf Trainer II, in the air and on the way to receiving its Certificate of Airworthiness 2 (Acrobatic Category) in a time that was cited as “a record-breaking achievement.” The aircraft drew some attention because of the novel gender of the designer in stories that stressed that an "attractive young lady” was behind the “very attractive” machine. But most reports focused on the aircraft’s smooth handling and operation. 3

The unfolding British Commonwealth Air Training Program offered a tremendous market for trainer aircraft at bases across Canada and one might think that there might have been special interest in something Canadian designed and made.

But the aircraft’s performance in the air may perversely signaled future problems, as it did not provide an adequate challenge to trainee pilots. At the same time, the British military were calling the shots early in the war and leaned to British designed equipment such as the de Havilland Tiger Moth series which had already been adopted by the RCAF.

When it came to aircraft purchases in the early 1940s, the Mexicans could not be that picky. Officially neutral in the first part of the war when equipment was in demand everywhere, they were happy to acquire a certified device that could also be manufactured in their country. With rigours of mountain flying and other hazards, they were also inclined to the easier to fly Canadian designed trainers.

They were all set up to receive parts and start work at the Can Car plant at Balbuena, and Can-Car and its Chief Engineer Elsie MacGill, who were by then preoccupied by the production of Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft for Britain, were happy to pass the project to the Mexicans. But when it came to a proposal to send the prototype to Mexico, they ran into a glitch.

Earlier in the year, the Government had rejected an application to ship the Can-Car Gregor biplane to the country. So, Can-Car never went ahead with an export application to send the prototype Maple Leaf II to Mexico. Instead, Can-Car produced papers to sell Elsie’s prototype to an individual associated with Columbia Aircraft in New York. In the fall of 1940, Elsie’s aircraft was photographed on Long Island around the time of the documented sale. But the aircraft disappeared shortly thereafter, and there is no record or remembrance that Columbia ever flew the prototype, kept it at its plant, or produced any examples of the design.

At the same time, Can-Car finalized negotiations with the Mexicans to wrap up their deal on the trainer and to transfer parts and plans to Mexico. The Mexicans were frustrated because the shops in Balbuena had not managed to finish a single aircraft under the contract for Grumman Goblins even though it was working with a proven and well-defined design. Given that Elsie’s aircraft had been sent to New York months before, it is significant that the Mexicans came to “la cuidad de Nueva York” 4 to conclude their negotiations with Can-Car rather than Fort William or the firm’s head office in Montreal.

Less than four months after the deal-sealing trip to New York, they had an entirely new design built and in the air over Mexico City.

Before Mexico’s decision to officially support the Allies in the war, at the time, the country was riddled with German spies, and other countries, besides Canada, were uneasy about shipping military equipment to it. U.S. intelligence officers kept a close watch on the Mexican military activity, and on August 8, 1941, a U.S. military attaché based in Mexico City filed Report No.75 stating: “The first training plane constructed entirely in Mexico City was tried out on August 6 [1941] by pilot Captain Luis Noriega Medrano, who put the plane through the most rigid tests, from which it came out alright ... General Fierro states that he has all the parts, including engines, for 10 more planes of this type and design.” 5

Experts who have reviewed the photographic evidence from that day, say the aircraft looks exactly like Elsie’s prototype although it was touted as having been built in Mexico. The suggestion that this aircraft was discrete from the Mexican production of trainers is also supported by later historical references that only cite ten (10) of the aircraft having been built in Mexico and with different parts and external features than the first.

Regardless, the aircraft flew well and impressed the crowds, and as noted in the Military Attaché report, Mexican General Fierro announced on the spot, a commitment to take the proven design, equipment and parts to build another ten. Yet it took two years to produce a second aircraft. It took four months for the first - the reverse of the normal timeline for aircraft design, development and manufacture.

Eventually, 10 additional aircraft using Can-Car parts and Elsie’s design were built under the supervision of celebrated engineer Roberto de la Barreda. The aircraft were dubbed the Ares models (numbered and named Ares 01 to Ares 10), celebrating the mythical Greek god of war and recognizing Mexico’s entry into the Second World War on the side of the Allies on May 22, 1942.

Mexico supported the Allies with supplies and many other forms of assistance throughout the war. But when it came time to participate militarily, all concerned, the Mexicans and the other Allied nations, pointed to the country’s small but well-trained air force as the best resource. About 300 members of the Mexican air force formed El Escuadrón 201,which took part in fighting in the Pacific theatre in 1945. Dubbed “the Aztec Eagles”, the pilots and aircrews are still celebrated as heroes in both Mexico and the Philippines.

While most of the Aztec Eagles and other Mexican airmen took their flight training in the United States, the records show that at least one pilot gained key experience in the cockpit of the Maple Leaf II.

By the time German U-boats began their attack on Mexican shipping in May 1942, Noriega Medrano, the man whom U.S. Military Intelligence recorded as being in the Maple Leaf II-like biplane in August 1941, was in command of patrols off the Mexican coast. 6 On July 7 that year, he spotted U-129, the German sub responsible for sinking two Mexican tankers, and hit it with two “one-hundred-pound” bombs. The act and subsequent patriotic publicity paved the way to the formation of the Aztec Eagles.

Through its contribution to the Allied effort, Mexico gain many benefits, including a “combat experienced air corps” and a new role on the world stage. Those Mexican airmen are also credited with building a school. On July 20, 1944, the pilots, aircrews and mechanics who were to form Escuadron 201 assembled at the Balbuena base to listen to President Avila Camacho before shipping out. He ended his speech with an invitation to assembled servicemen “to petition me with whatever you may desire.”

A soldier in the rear ranks took two steps forward, smartly saluted, and said in a loud voice, “Mi Presidente, I request that a school be built in my home town of Tepoztlan, Morelos.” The Escuadrón 201 Heroes primary school still stands in that town today. 7

As these events unfolded during the war, Elsie MacGill was consumed by other pressures. In many quarters, she is best known for having led the Can-Car Engineering Shop during the time that over 1,400 Hawker Hurricanes were built at the plant. Later, Elsie contributed to international aviation safety as a consultant to governments and as the first woman to chair a United Nations Technical Committee.

Yet given Elsie Gregory MacGill’s later life dedication to equal access and educational opportunity, had she known, she might have been most moved by the story of the Mexican primary school and its association with the final days of her biplane trainer.

1 The Maple Leaf Trainer I was evidently built with the intent of sales to Nicaragua, as the prototype tested in Fort William Apr. 18, 1938, bore identification (GN-3) from that country. K.M. Molson and H.A. Taylor, Canadian Aircraft Since 1909. Stittsville, ON: Canada’s Wings, Inc.,1982, 165.

2 F.H. Ellis, Canada’s Flying Heritage. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1954, 298.

3 “Introducing The Maple Leaf Trainer”, Canadian Aviation, August 1940, 20 said a number of civilian pilots “enthused over its performance.” Similar quotes in Gordon Burkowski, Can-Car: A History 1912–1992. Thunder Bay, ON: Bombardier Inc., 1995, 46.

4 José Villela Gomez, Breve historia de la aviacion en México, D.F. Mexico (s.n.) 1971, 228–230.

5 Interview with Dan Hagedorn, Archives Research Team Leader and Adjunct Curator, Latin American Aviation, Archives Division, Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC (Nov. 17, 2006), in the U.S. National Archives at College Park, MD 2007

6 Schwab, Stephen I., “The role of the Mexican expeditionary air force in World War II: Late, limited, but symbolically significant”, Journal of Military History, 66 (2002): 1119

7 September 4, 2014

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Dick Bourgeois-Doyle is a developing writer, government administrator, skilled daydreamer, and aging jogger living in Ottawa, Canada. Currently Director of Corporate Governance at Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), he has worked on a number of special projects since joining the NRC Executive Offices in 1987. Bourgeois-Doyle previously served as Chief of Staff to the Minister of Science and Technology and the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and was start-up manager of successful technology and public relations firms.

A former broadcaster and journalist, he has contributed to many books, articles, TV features, and radio programs on science history. Bourgeois-Doyle authored the
Canadian Science Publishing (CSP) Biographies – George J. Klein: The Great Inventor and Her Daughter the Engineer: The Life of Elsie Gregory MacGill and edited
and co-wrote CSP’s Renaissance II: Canadian Creativity and Innovation in the New Millennium. His other works include the story of survival and Northern Ontario
firefighting Stubborn: Big Ed Caswell and the Line from the Valley to the Northland and the satirical novel The Most Integrated, Strategic and Aligned Servant of the Public Don Quincy de la Mangement. Bourgeois-Doyle is one of several people sometimes referred to as “The 6th Beatle.”