Opinion

A view from Dave Trott: Miss Shilling's orifice

Everyone knows that the Spitfire was as good as the Messerschmitt 109.

Photo credit: Julian Hanford
Photo credit: Julian Hanford

But that wasn’t true at first.

In 1940, if a Spitfire got behind a Messerschmitt, the 109 pilot could easily escape by going into a dive.

If the Spitfire followed, its engine cut out and the 109 got away.

It was a technical problem that would take years to solve.

But the RAF didn’t have years.

So a woman named Tilly Shilling cut through the crap and solved it. 

Shilling had a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, but she could also braze-weld as well as any craftsman.

The problem she solved was that the 109 had modern fuel injection, but the Spitfire had an old-fashioned float carburettor.

When a Spitfire followed the 109 into a dive, centrifugal force pushed the carburettor float upwards, cutting off the fuel supply.

The engine lost power and the 109 got away.

The answer was to design a new type of pressurised carburettor.

But that would take years.

Then Shilling had an idea.

She made a small brass collar with a hole in the middle.

She would weld the collar to the inside of the carburettor.

It would stop the float rising too far, and the small hole would allow fuel to flow through.

Shilling went round every RAF base in the country.

She and her team welded the small collar into every Spitfire engine.

And a wonderful thing began happening.

As the 109 pilots dived to get away, the Spitfires followed them.

The German pilots looked into their mirrors and saw the Spitfires still on their tails, with guns blazing.

If they tried to escape by diving, they were now shot down.

Spitfire pilots loved the device braze-welded into their carburettors.

They fondly named it "Miss Shilling’s Orifice".

The pressurised carburettor wasn’t available for another two years.

But in those two years, "Miss Shilling’s Orifice" was responsible for shooting down lots of German planes.

And saving the lives of lots of Spitfire pilots.

In peacetime, her simple solution wouldn’t even have been tried.

Everyone would have waited years for the pressurised carburettor. 

But when you’re in trouble, you can’t wait years.

That’s why I prefer to work for clients who are in trouble.

It has a wonderful way of concentrating the mind.

I like clients who need an urgent solution.

Who have to change the situation in a hurry, who have to be brave.

They have to try things they wouldn’t normally try.

Things they aren’t comfortable with.

The need to survive overrides everything else.

That’s a very focusing conversation.

I like situations where the conversation isn’t: "Do I like it?"

The conversation is: "Will it work?"

There aren’t a lot of subjective personal preferences there.

There’s a definite, powerful, effective answer.

Comfortable or not, it isn’t important.

Because the only way to change something quickly is to be daring.

And daring solutions usually aren’t comfortable.

And comfortable solutions usually aren’t daring.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three