Sky’s the limit – Brian Maye on aviation pioneer Lilian Bland
An Irishman’s Diary
Lilian Bland in her home-made biplane “Mayfly”. She devised an ad-hoc fuel system comprising a whiskey bottle and her aunt’s ear-trumpet when there was a delay in delivering the fuel tank. Photograph: Ulster Aviation Society
‘I had proved wrong the many people who said that no woman could build an aeroplane, and that gave me great satisfaction.” Lilian Bland, who wrote those words, was a journalist and skilled photographer and became a pioneering aviator; she was the first woman in these islands, and perhaps even in Europe and the world, to design, build and fly her own aircraft. She died 50 years ago on May 11th.
She came from a long line of Anglo-Irish gentry and when her mother died, the family moved back to their ancestral roots at Carnmoney, Co Antrim. Raised in the typical gentry pursuits of hunting, shooting and fishing, she became a skilled horse rider.
As one of the first women journalists, she specialised in sports and had a lively writing style.
Photography greatly appealed to her and she became an adept practitioner, developing and fixing her own photographs. Bird flight was a subject she also wrote about, which in turn aroused her interest in flight mechanics.
The activities of the Wright brothers in America and Louis Blériot in France featured a lot in the newspapers of the time and she followed those stories avidly, developing something of an obsession with flying.
Blériot’s pioneering cross-Channel flight on July 25th, 1909, caused her to acquire the dimensions of his monoplane, of which she decided to build a scale model. She attended a meeting of amateur aviators in England in October that year, where she learned a lot about aviation techniques and aircraft dimensions, and she returned to the family estate at Carnmoney determined to design, build and fly the first powered airplane in Ireland.
Local and imported timber, such as ash, elm and bamboo, were used by her to build smaller models at first, eventually constructing a full-size glider with a wingspan of more than 20 feet (six metres).
She humorously named it “Mayfly”, perhaps with the short-lived insect of that name in mind or maybe also with reference to the possibilities of its taking flight.
In early 1910, it glided down from the top of Carnmoney Hill, with five men hanging off it as ballast.
Heartened by the success of this maiden flight, she decided the craft could bear the weight of an engine if it could bear the weight of five men.
She ordered a 20 horse-power, two-stroke engine from England and devised an ad-hoc fuel system comprising a whiskey bottle and her aunt’s ear-trumpet when there was a delay in delivering the fuel tank.
In summer 1910, in a large field on the Randalstown estate in Co Antrim, Lilian Bland strapped herself into her self-built aircraft and turned on the fitted engine. In the words of Marian Broderick’s book Bold, Brilliant and Bad: Irish Women from History (2018), the plane “kangaroo-hopped across the field, stopping the hearts of Lilian’s father and other spectators”. The Mayfly rose to about 30 feet (nine metres).
She planned to start a commercial aircraft company but her highly anxious father persuaded her to switch her interest to motor cars by presenting her with a Model T Ford. Before long she was a skilled driver and became an agent for Ford cars in Belfast.
In October 1911, she married her cousin, Charles Loftus Bland from Vancouver Island, Canada, and settled with him in a remote area of British Columbia. They led a difficult life, with a number of failed ventures and financial problems. Their only child, Patricia Lilian, died from tetanus in 1929 at the age of 16.
The marriage did not survive the tragedy and in 1945, Lilian Bland left Canada for England, where she eventually became a landscape gardener.
She retired to Cornwall in 1955 and spent the rest of her long life painting, gardening and enjoying horse racing. There is a full-size sculpture of Mayfly in a park named after her in Glengormley, Co Antrim.
She had written many letters to Flight magazine between 1909 and 1911, explaining her designs and experiences and in a detailed article in December 1910, accompanied by photographs and diagrams, she called flying the finest sport in the world.
Marian Broderick wrote that with “initiative, guts and determination, [she] had all the qualities to make a great design engineer in the early 1900s. All, that is, except one: she wasn’t born a man.” But she didn’t let that hold her back.