Lilian Bland: Ireland’s first female pilot, the world’s first female aviation engineer
31 May 2016
Bland in the Mayfly (pic: www.lillianbland.ie)
In the history of aviation, the early greats – the so-called ‘pioneers’ – spring to mind. Gustav Whitehead and the Wright Brothers (who really flew first?), Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Louis Blériot have all earned their places in history.
The geographic location of Ireland on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean has meant that this country, too, has played no small part. The ground-breaking flight of Alcock and Brown and the exploits of Douglas ‘wrong way’ Corrigan being the most famous examples. Some may even recall that the great Irish engineer Harry Ferguson (of Massey Ferguson tractor fame) was the first Irishman to design, fly and build his own plane in 1909. It is indeed a significant omission to our popular historical memory that the first woman in the world to do the same, only a few months after Ferguson, was one of our own.
In 1909, pilot-to-be Amelia Earhart was only 12 years old, while Lilian Bland was the epitome of the newly independent woman that began to emerge from the upper and middle classes in the early 1900s. Born in Kent, England in 1878 to Irish parents, she moved back to her family home in Carnmoney, Co Antrim in 1900. This Edwardian lady shocked the morally conservative local community by smoking, riding astride horses, wearing men’s breeches, practicing Ju-Jitsu, shooting and tinkering with motorcar engines. She was also self-sufficient. successfully working as one of the first female sports journalists and press photographers.
It was while she was on a bird-photography exhibition in Scotland that she received something that would inspire her. In the great tradition of encouraging uncles, he had sent her a postcard of Louis Blériot’s aeroplane that had just crossed the English Channel, complete with full dimensions.
Developing the Mayfly
This inspired the mechanically minded Lilian and, after a detour to an aviation exhibition in Blackpool, the first thing she set upon on her return home was to make a scaled-down model biplane. This ‘kite model’ had a six-foot wingspan and she succeeded in making it fly effectively. She then set about making a full-scale glider in her father’s workshop at Tobercorran House.
This glider was constructed out of spruce and bamboo, held together by fabric and wire and in a humorous twist she christened it ‘Mayfly’ (may fly, may not fly). She began to test it using Carnmoney Hill as her launch site and it flew perfectly. Her next experiment was to see if the light frame of the glider would be robust enough to hold the weight of an engine.
To do this, she managed to persuade four members of the Royal Irish Constabulary and young garden-boy called Joe Blain to assist her. Imploring them to hang on, the glider took off, lifting all five of the men. This only lasted for a few seconds, as the constables collectively lost their nerve, leaving the brave garden boy flying solo.
This experiment proved that the glider could hold the engine and she ordered a 20 horsepower Avro (A.V. Roe) air-cooled engine and adjustable-pitch propeller for the purpose. Unwilling to wait for its delivery, she travelled to Manchester, England, to collect it and transport it back to Ireland. Unfortunately, it was not ready; it was missing a petrol tank. Undaunted, she took the partially completed engine and bodged a substitute tank using a whiskey bottle and a deaf aunt’s ear trumpet. She described the noise of the engine as “a cat-fight on a very enlarged scale” when she first tested it, with some locals thinking the mill had blown up and others that a thunderstorm was on its way.
Carnmoney Hill was not suitable for an engine-powered flight. Undeterred, she managed to pursue, meet and persuade aristocratic landowner Lord O’Neil to offer her the use of his 800-acre Deerpark Estate in Randalstown for the purpose. It suited her needs, with the exception of a free-roaming bull named Ferdinand, who supplied an unwanted additional motivation to get off the ground. The vagaries of the Irish climate then played its part, with five weeks of rain and wind preventing take off. This was followed by mechanical difficulties with the propeller disintegrating.
Finally, on 31 August 1910, the conditions were right. As the engine was positioned behind the pilot, the ever-helpful Joe Blain stood between the tail booms and swung the propeller starting it. Then the Mayfly, piloted by Lilian Bland, was able to make the first of several motor-powered flights rising to approximately 30 feet high and travelling for a quarter mile. Her own words describe the event: “I could hardly believe it. After each flight, I ran back to see where the wheel tracks left the grass, to convince myself that I really had been airborne.”
On the centenary of her historic flight, a park in Glengormley, not far from her home at Carnmoney, was renamed in her honour; the centrepiece of it being a stainless steel sculpture of the Mayfly. Beyond this fitting tribute by the local community, very little had been done to keep her memory and the memory of her historic achievement alive. In recent years, this has changed, however, with the creation of a website dedicated to her memory: www.lilianbland.ie.
Curated by historian Colm O’Rourke, this website is a treasure trove of photographs, newspaper interviews, reports, designs, workbook notes and personal letters from Bland herself to Flight magazine and others. This extensive library covers not just Bland’s aviation exploits, but also her amazing life preceding and after this seminal event.
Mayfly design features and technology
Model-maker Leif Ohlsson has painstakingly researched the Mayfly, analysing its design features and technology (sometimes just from a few blurry photographs) and deducing how the plane operated and flew. In the course of his research, he discovered the Mayfly had some unique and complex elements that were ingeniously advanced for the time.
Aviation elevators and ailerons were combined to create modern-style ‘elevons’, with the additional feature that the front elevators could be used independently as a counterintuitive steering system. Another unique feature was a backrest control that responded to whichever direction the pilot leaned causing the plane to level out.
Bland studied the design of other contemporary aeroplanes, incorporating various features into the Mayfly design and also engineering some unique features in their own right. Like her fellow trailblazer Harry Ferguson, she was a regular contributor to Flight magazine (now Flight International) from its very inception in 1909. This journal, which was ‘devoted to the interests, practice and progress of aerial locomotion and transport’, and others were treated to fascinating insights into Bland’s progress, modifications (those that succeeded and failed), design evolution and, most of all, her enthusiasm for the project.
So what happened to Lilian Bland after this historic event? She was obviously and deservedly delighted with the success, continuing to refine her aeroplane and making more flights up till the spring of 1911. Her father, however, was horrified at her adventures and was desperate for her to stop this ‘dangerous’, ‘unbecoming’ and ‘unladylike’ activity, as he saw it. Similarly to how modern fathers have been known to react on seeing their offspring on motorbikes, he offered to buy her a motor car if she agreed to stop her activities.
Bland, not one to cave into parental pressure so easily, considered her options. The Mayfly was underpowered, capable of only minimal ‘grasshopper’-type flight and a more powerful engine would have destroyed the aeroplane superstructure without significant and expensive reengineering and redesign.
With this in mind, she accepted her father’s offer. She was satisfied that she had proved her point to those who had said that no woman could build or fly an aeroplane. Indeed, she had more than made a point: she had made history.
Life back on the ground
If her father thought buying her a car would settle her down to the sedate and respectable life of an Edwardian lady, he would soon find out how wrong he was. As a passenger in her new Model T Ford car that was being driven from Dublin, she insisted the driver pull over and she take the wheel, completing the journey home with limited driving instruction.
Bland tried unsuccessfully to start an aeroplane parts business, but aviation’s loss would prove to be the automobile’s gain, as she opened and operated the first Ford Dealership in Belfast, selling it as a going concern several years later. After an unsuccessful attempt to ride in the Grand National, the adventurer emigrated to Canada where she married her equally adventurous lumberjack cousin Charles Bland. Here, they settled onto wild frontier land on Vancover Island, where boats were the most efficient means of transport. By necessity, she then became a marine engineer, fixing the engines vital to her survival.
After the tragic death of her daughter, Bland moved to England and, in the 1950s, she retired to a little hillside cottage beside the sea at Sennen, West Cornwall, to a life of gardening, painting and betting on five horses a day. It was in this isolated but idyllic part of the world that she finally settled down. Indeed in 1971, she was laid to rest there, at the age of 92 – a woman who broke boundaries, made history and lived life to the full.
Special thanks to Colm O’Rouke and Leif Ohlsson for pictures, factual information and technical details.
See www.lilianbland.ie for more details.