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  • Sara Thompson

Racing Ahead with Tilly Shilling

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise

Image credit: The Royal Air Force, obtained from Wikimedia Commons

Beatrice (Tilly) Shilling was born on March 8, 1909 in Waterlooville, England. She was a curious child who enjoyed taking apart and putting items back together again. She spent her pocket money on tools and Meccano building sets, winning prizes for her creations. She continued with her building interests and even bought herself a motorcycle at the age of 14. She taught herself how to disassemble and reassemble the engine and would often tune and tinker with it in her spare time.

After completing her schooling, she worked installing wires and generators for an electrical engineering company. Her employer and mentor, Margaret Partridge, encouraged Shilling to attend university. Shilling attended Victoria University of Manchester, studying electrical engineering. In 1932, she and her classmate, Sheila McGuffie, were the only two women in their engineering graduating class. Shilling continued her studies for another year and received her Master’s in mechanical engineering.

Shilling worked as a research assistant for Professor Mucklow at the University of Birmingham. In her spare time, she raced her motorbike, often reaching 100mph or more. She was awarded the British Motorcycle Racing Club’s Gold Star award in 1934. Close friends would say her idea of relaxation was driving at full throttle and tinkering at her workbench to go even faster.

In 1936, Shilling was recruited to work on projects for the Royal Aircraft Establishment and the Royal Air Force. During World War II the Royal Air Force discovered that planes equipped with the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines would stall or cut out during dives. This put the pilots in extreme danger and caused their enemies to outmaneuver them in the air. Shilling discovered how to prevent the carburetors from flooding and preventing them from stalling. She and a team traveled to RAF locations and installed the engine patch, significantly bettering the plane’s efficiencies during the height of WWII. Chief engineer Keith Maddock said her small adjustment became a war-winning modification and without it likely would have resulted in their defeat.

After the War, Shilling refused to slow down. She and her husband, George Naylor, would tune and race cars. She also continued working for the Royal Aircraft Establishment until her retirement in 1969. She passed away in 1990 at the age of 81. She is often regarded as a significant contributor to Allied victory in WWII and continues to be an inspiration to women engineers worldwide.

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