Canadian Aviatrix #86 – Elspeth Russell (1922-1974)
Margaret Elspeth Russell was born on 14 September 1922 in Montreal, Quebec, to William Russell (lumber merchant, vice-president of James Richardson & Co) and Frances Ellen Noble.
William and Frances had a son (Shirley Noble Russell) who died when he was 17 – a football accident while attending Lower Canada College. Elspeth was born two years later, when her parents were almost 50 years old. Frances had been an “invalid” for many years and William was busy at work, so Elspeth had a fairly solitary childhood.
William died when Elspeth was 11 years old and she was sent to King’s Hall, a girls boarding school, where she excelled both academically and in sports. She then attended McGill University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1942.
On 30 June 1941, Elspeth passed her flying test and received her PPL, making her the 86th female pilot in Canada. She was 18 years old.
Photo: McGill University yearbook, 1940 (Old McGill, vol 43)
Elspeth didn’t want to join the Women’s Division of the RCAF, as they weren’t allowed to fly, so she joined the British Air Transport Auxiliary and ferried planes from factories to the RAF airfields. Elspeth was barely 5’2”, so her height was a concern, but she proved herself to be very capable, “an excellent ferry pilot… hardworking and ready for any job”. In England, she met American pilot Gerard Burnett (known as Gerry), beat him at ping pong and fell in love. They used to arrange their schedules to meet up and logging many hours flying together.
Elspeth left the ATA in October 1945, with the rank of Second Officer and having flown 548 hours in 34 types of aircraft. She married Gerry in England and they moved back to Canada, where she became the seventh woman in Canada to get her instructor’s rating.
Elspeth and Gerry formed an airline (Matane Air Service), which they ran from 1948 until selling it to Quebec Air in 1965. The couple also had three sons and spent their precious spare time camping and waterskiing.
Elspeth died in 1974, aged 52. In 2002, she was named a pioneer of aviation by the Fondation Aérovision Québec. She also has a park and a road named after her and the Matane airport is named the Russell-Burnett Airport.