The ‘B’ in the RAF’s Bonnet

18 August 2015

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“Beatrice was widely known for solving a problem that affected fighter aircraft in action before and during the Battle of Britain”, says Matthew Freudenberg in his book Negative Gravity: A Life of Beatrice Shilling (Charlton Publications, 2004).

‘B’ in the High Altitude Test Plant. Photographed 19 June, 1956. RAE Farnborough“This problem was a tendency of the Rolls-Royce engine that powered Spitfires and Hurricanes to hesitate or cut out completely just as the pilot entered a dive in pursuit of, or in flight from, an enemy aircraft.”

Known to her family as simply ‘B’ and referred to as ‘Tilly’ by her staff —in her absence — Beatrice reported for work as a Technical Author at the Farnborough branch of the Air Ministry’s Technical Publications Department at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) Farnborough on 25 April 1936. Six months later she joined the Carburettor Section of the Engine Experimental Department and on 1 November 1939 she was promoted to Technical Officer in charge of carburettor research and development work. In January 1942 ‘B’ was promoted to the grade of Senior Technical Officer, becoming head of the Engines and Accessories section.

According to Matthew Freudenberg, Beatrice and her small team worked 19-hour shifts, bench-testing carburettors on a test rig in an effort to remedy the fuel-feed problem. It was Beatrice who came up with the solution — “. . . a simple brass restrictor (commonly referred to as ‘Miss Shilling’s Orifice’; officially known as the RAE Restrictor) fitted between the end of the fuel intake pipe and the union at the entrance to the carburettor inlet gallery. It could be fitted to an engine while it was still in an aircraft at an operational airfield without removing the carburettor.” In 1948 ‘B’ was awarded the OBE for her contribution to the war effort.

“She was formidable,” says Dennis Lock who married her sister, Anne. “When candidates came for interview she’d ask them to solve the quadratic equation. She didn’t suffer fools gladly. When I first met her”, adds Dennis, “I couldn’t believe that this slightly-built dishevelled lady in plain corduroys, baggy top and no hint of makeup was a person of any distinction. But she was treated with great respect wherever she went. She spoke in a low drawl, often smiled but rarely laughed, had a wry sense of rumour and occasionally made astute observations with witty one-liners. She shared a taste for good literature and music with her sister Anne.

“Apart from having a pilot’s licence, ‘B’ was an outstanding motorcyclist. In the mid-1930s she twice won the coveted ‘Gold Star’ for lapping Brooklands at well over 100mph on a Norton that she had stripped down, rebuilt and tuned herself. Only one other Brooklands Gold star was awarded to a woman. Her racing career ended with a crash in her Elva Courier car at Goodwood in 1962.” ‘B’ gained her masters engineering degree at a time when women were disadvantaged and subject to serious male prejudice. “She had a formidable knowledge of physics and engineering and a gift for applying this to practical problems encountered in her work”, writes Matthew Freudenberg. “She led and motivated the members of sections that she was responsible for.”

‘B’ lived with mathematician husband George Naylor in a double-fronted Victorian house in Farnborough. “One large sitting room was transformed into a workshop for her private use, dominated by a seriously big Herbert lathe, various other machine tools and with spanners and screwdrivers beautifully aligned on the walls,” says Dennis Lock. “It was a precision engineering workshop, with cupboards and drawers full of measuring gauges and carefully maintained tools. Screws, nuts, bolts and rivets were stored in little Sobranie cigarette tins with their contents cleared labelled. She was a meticulous, hands-on engineer (and obviously a heavy smoker).”

Their devoted but childless marriage went through the stresses of war when George became a pilot with RAF Bomber Command (he won the DFC for gallantry). ‘B’ and George continued at the RAE after the war, working on projects including investigations into the De Havilland Comet crashes. ‘B’ also worked on aircraft refrigeration and at one time advised the British bobsleigh team on their vehicle design. ‘B’ retired with the grade of Senior Principal Scientific Officer in 1969, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Surrey in the same year. She died in 1990. George remained in their house alone until his demise in 1996. Shortly after George’s death, the house was demolished and replaced by three modern dwellings, leaving no trace of their former history.

Photographs:

Header image: Posing with her Norton for a publicity photograph used in the 1935 Norton catalogue. Beatrice tuned the engine to make it one of the fastest machines in its class. Anne and Dennis Lock.

‘B’ in the High Altitude Test Plant. Photographed 19 June, 1956. RAE Farnborough.

© MOD Crown Copyright 2015

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