Beatrice Shilling and how she helped RAF pilots to fight another day

BY RICHARD MADDOX

BEATRICE SHILLING was born into a middle-class family in Waterlooville near Portsmouth in Hampshire, England in 1909 before moving with her family to Surrey in 1914.

Deciding in her early teens that she wanted to be an engineer, Beatrice left school and became an apprentice with Margaret Partridge who ran an electrical engineering company. Her company had a number of contracts with local authorities installing both domestic and industrial wiring and generators. It became apparent that her apprentice had a great talent for engineering (1).

Margarete was a member of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and would become its president for 1944 – 1945(2). The Society was formed in 1919 to press for women to continue to work in industry (as they had done during the First World War) and ultimately to be regarded as equal to their male counter parts.

In 1929 after three year of working with and being mentored by Margaret and after WES had helped her get her applied mathematics to the required level and given her an interest-free loan for her studies, Beatrice applied to the Victoria University in Manchester.

She was one of two women enrolling on the Electrical Engineering degree course that year – the first time the course had been open to women. She would graduate with honours in 1932 and do a post-graduate MSc in Mechanical Engineering the following year. (3)

Beatrice became a research assistant to Dr G F Mucklow in 1934, helping with his work concerning supercharging single-cylinder engines.

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Beatrice in a publicity photograph used in the 1935 Norton catalogue. Image © Anne and Dennis Lock via https://www.raf.mod.uk/news/archive/the-b-in-the-rafs-bonnet-18082015.

Before going to university she had ridden and maintained her own motorcycle. At Victoria University she modified a Norton M30 500cc motorcycle by adding a supercharger and gained a Gold Star award for lapping the Brooklands motor racing circuit in Surrey at 106 miles an hour.

Joining the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) on 25 April 1936 as a Technical Author, she would spend six months in the Technical Publications Department before transfering to the Carburettor Section of the Engine Experimental Department. (4)

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Dark days ahead; Spitfires in Flight. Image © R Maddox 2017

As the RAF went into sustained combat operations in May 1940 a problem with the Rolls Royce Merlin engine equipping their latest fighters emerged.

The designers of the engine – fitted to both the early marks of Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire aircraft – had decided to use a carburettor rather than fuel injection as their German counterparts at Daimler Benz had done for the engine powering both the Messerschmitt bf 109 and Messerschmitt bf 110 fighters.

Carburettors are a vital component that ensures that fuel and air are mixed and delivered to the engine’s combustion chambers to provide optimum performance. Fuel injection does the same task but in a different way.

This design choice meant that an increase in the fuel/air density of carburettor-fed engines as opposed to their fuel injector counterparts resulting in a higher horse power to weight ratio.

However it also meant that when diving in combat the engine of the British fighters could misfire and cut out under negative gravitation as fuel pushed the carburettor needle closed. If the dive was continued then the pressure of the fuel could force the needle open and the fuel flood the engine’s combustion chambers.

Although the RAF pilots had a ‘work round’ of half rolling into the dive it was clear that a more effective solution was needed so they could fully utilise their aircraft’s potential.

Beatrice designed a restrictor plate – looking similar to a metal washer – that prevented flooding.  This together with modifications to the needle and an improvement to the float chamber to prevented the fuel and float from surging under negative gravity helped alleviate the problem.

Miss Shilling married George Naylor, an RAE mathematician (and later a pilot with RAF Bomber Command) September 1938. It is said that she would only accept his proposal after he too had lapped Brooklands racing circuit at a speed greater than 100 miles an hour!

She continued working at RAE on a variety of projects before retiring in 1969 as Head of Engineering Research Division.

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Beatrice receiving her Honorary Doctorate at Surrey University in December 1969.
Image from University of Surrey Archives & Special Collections Blog.

Over the course of her career she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Surrey University (5), was a Chartered Engineer as well as being a member of WES and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.

For her wartime work she was awarded an OBE in 1947.

Away from work she and George continued to race both motorcycles and later cars until health problems intervened. Then they took up target shooting.

She died in 1990 and was survived by her husband for another six years.

SOURCES:

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_Engineering_Society retrieved 12 July 2017
(2) https://thrustvector.wordpress.com/2010/03/24/beatrice-shilling/ retrieved 12 July 2017
(3) https://ww2aircraft.net/forum/threads/spitfire-engine-failure-in-dive.12768/ retrieved 12 July 2017
(4) https://www.raf.mod.uk/news/archive/the-b-in-the-rafs-bonnet-18082015 retrieved 12 July 2017
(5) http://www.wes.org.uk/content/history/presidents-past-present retrieved 12 July 2017
(6) https://blogs.surrey.ac.uk/archives/2017/03/08/international-womens-day-the-inspirational-beatrice-shilling-2/ retrieved 12 July 2017

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