The highs and lows of those early aviation years

Lilian Bland was one such magnificent and colourful aviator in a flying machine

Lilian Bland at the controls of the Mayfly.

Lilian Bland at the controls of the Mayfly.

 

January 13th , 1912

The first dozen or so years of the 20th century marked an era of pioneering in aviation. An article in The Irish Times in January 1912 detailed the highs and lows of some local aviation clubs. 

“The Irish Aero Club, which was started with much éclat a couple of years ago, seemed to promise great things, but beyond organising the flying meeting at Leopardstown and reading a few papers on aerial flight, it has done little to encourage the new science of the air in Ireland. It is rather a pity that its activities should have ceased so soon, for the only meeting which it organised was a financial success, and the same cannot be said of those promoted by the English clubs.

“The exhibition of Mr. Harry Ferguson’s biplane at the Rotunda seems to have been productive of substantial results, and the Dublin Flying Club, with headquarters at 2 Gardiner’s Row, has been formed. The club has acquired a plot of ground at Malahide, which it is intended to use as an aerodrome, and in a few months, when the weather has improved sufficiently to permit of flying, we may hope to see our budding aeronauts give some displays. The club already possesses two machines, a monoplane, with engine, and a biplane ‘glider’ presented by Miss Lilian Bland, of Belfast, who is giving up aviation consequent upon her marriage.”

Bland was perhaps the first woman in the world to design, build and fly an aeroplane

That was Lilian Bland’s first mention in The Irish Times, in the Dublin Topics column, byline: the Clubman. It wasn’t until 1969 that she would be written about again, in An Irishman’s Diary, in a piece about aviation pioneers referencing her 1910 flight where she “made a bi-plane glider at Carnmoney (the site of a suburban cemetery) and flew it so well with the help of strong R.I.C. men on the launching rope that she later installed a 20 h.p. two-stroke engine in the same fuselage and rode the air without mishap”.

Bland was perhaps the first woman in the world to design, build and fly an aeroplane. Her plane was called the Mayfly, a name that gives some indication of her sense of humour. Born into a family of Anglo-Irish gentry, Bland was initially a journalist and press photographer for newspapers in London. When she was 28 years old her mother died and she and her father moved to Tobercorran House in Antrim. She continued to work as a press photographer and also as a sports writer. Inspired by a postcard an uncle sent her from Paris of the Blériot monoplane, she decided to take up aviation. 

As Clare O’Connell detailed in The Irish Times on International Women’s Day in 2008, Bland built the biplane “from spruce, bamboo, wire and calico in a scientific way”. O’Connell offered a different take on those “strong R.I.C. men”, writing “the biplane was surprisingly keen to get airborne, and took off with four stalwarts and rather startled policemen hanging on to it”.

She scandalised her relations by smoking, drinking and riding a horse astride

In August 2010, The Irish Times marked the centenary of her flight. “Even before she took the surprising decision to make and fly her own plane, Bland had developed quite a reputation for her devil-may-care exploits and insouciant approach to social mores of the times. Granddaughter of a Belfast curate, she scandalised her relations by smoking, drinking and riding a horse astride,” wrote Fionola Meredith. 

Bland’s father was reportedly opposed to her aviation career and bought her a car to tempt her away from the skies. Like most things in her life she took to that with gusto and became a car dealer. As the 1912 article notes, her plane was donated to the Dublin Flying Club when Bland married her cousin, a Canadian lumberjack, and moved to British Columbia to start a farm. Their only child, Patricia, died from tetanus aged 16 and upon her death Bland separated from her husband and returned to England. She moved to Cornwall where she gardened, painted and gambled. She also reportedly wrote a memoir which remains unpublished. She died in 1971 aged 92.

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