Reviewed by Graham White
Beatrice “Tilly” Shilling is a legend in Merlin lore. It was Ms. Shilling who overcame the serious negative “G” cutout problems with SU carburetor equipped Merlins. The tale has been told many times but briefly the SU carburetor was not equipped to handle negative “G” without first starving the engine for fuel and then over compensating and drowning the engine with an over rich mixture. The solution was disarmingly simple, a restrictor orifice fitted to the fuel supply line. In a way it’s too bad that Ms. Shilling’s reputation at the Royal Aircraft Establishment was based on this one, albeit major, accomplishment.
Prior to WWII she was an expert motor cycle rider who participated at the famous Brooklands speedway, basically a British equivalent to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Unfortunately but understandably, Brooklands was demolished during WWII as it stuck out like a sore thumb and would have made an ideal navigation reference point for German bombers. The book delves into the frustration Ms. Shilling suffered for not being promoted and blamed it on her sex. Reading between the lines I got the impression that, true, she lived in a very chauvinistic time when it was rare to have female physicists running the show. However, part of the blame should have rested with Ms. Shilling. As author Matthew Freudenberg astutely pointed out, she was not what would today be known as a “power dresser”, in fact she looked pretty awful. One interesting photograph in the book shows her consulting with Dan Gurney in 1967 when he was campaigning his All American Eagle Formula 1 racer. At the time his Harry Weslake designed V-12 was suffering overheating problems and Ms. Shilling was brought in as a consultant. In the photo she looked like a frumpy old British housewife with hand bag draped over her arm and yet despite this persona she was one of the most brilliant engineers of her time – fascinating.
Today, she would no doubt be regarded as politically incorrect. Exacerbating the situation for her was the fact she showed little respect for her superiors. I can certainly empathize with that attitude, however, the consequences are few or no promotions. One has to respect her single mindedness and independence because she must have surely realized that it cost her big time. If she had been a male and knew how to play the game there is no doubt she would have ended up running the RAE.
The book also explores her personal life, particularly her relationship with her husband and his WWII service as a Lancaster bomber pilot who completed 36 missions. Overall, I rate this book as an excellent read and well worth the money.