Thursday, 18 December 2014

Lilian Bland, Pioneering Aviatrix.

In September 1910, the lesser known aviatrix Lilian Bland, not only flew Ireland's first powered biplane, but was also the first woman in the world to design, build and fly an aeroplane. Her American counterpart, Amelia Earhart was only just twelve years old at the time.

Lilian was born on 28th September 1878 at Willington House near Maidstone in Kent, England. She came from a long line of Irish descendants, dating back as far as 1670 and in 1900 her father John moved the family back to his native Carnmoney in Co. Antrim. Lilian became interested in photography and would often wander over Carnmoney Hill, her favourite place, where she would watch and photograph the birds soaring overhead and dream of joining them up in the sky.

She was an unconventional young woman, engaging in activities that were not appropriate for a young lady in the Edwardian period. She dressed in breeches, smoked cigarettes and tampered with motor car engines. She rode astride on horses and took part in hunting, fishing and shooting activities, of which she was very skilled.

By 1908, Lilian had established herself as a sports journalist and press photographer for London newspapers. During the summer of that year whilst staying with friends in Scotland, Lilian spent most of her time watching and photographing the seagulls manoeuvring in the skies above her, increasing  her longing to be up there with them and her fascination in flying. A postcard of Louis Blériot's monoplane with it's dimensions, sent to her by her Uncle Robert from France, further fuelled her aspirations in aviation.

Lilian attended the first official aviation meeting held in Blackpool in 1909, where she took careful detailed notes of the measurements and dimensions of the aircrafts on display. She also observed the aviators in flight, noting that 'they keep their heads to the wind and turn a corner by drifting round tail-first.' She read all the information she could in books and magazines, especially Flight magazine, and at her uncle's well-equipped workshop, set to work designing and building her own plane.

First she built a biplane glider, with a wing span of six feet, that she flew successfully as a kite, which encouraged her to start work on her full-size glider. She used materials of bamboo, spruce, elm and ash and remembering the seagulls in Scotland, she steamed the ash to bend it into shape to emulate the slight curvature at the tip of their wings. Spruce was used for the ribs and stanchions and she soaked unbleached calico in a mixture of gelatine and formalin, to make it waterproof. The skids were also made of ash and the outriggers were bamboo.

The engine bed was made from American elm and was fastened by wires attached to the upper and lower wings, to keep it secure. The fuel tank was housed in the chassis and the canvas pilot's seat was enclosed and secured by four straps to prevent the pilot from falling out. The controls were a bicycle handle bar. The finished glider had a wingspan of twenty feet and seven inches and weighed tow hundred pounds. Due to some doubt of its flying capability, Lilian, with deliberate irony, named it the Mayfly.

The Mayfly

The Mayfly had its trial flight on the slopes of Carnmoney Hill, where Lilian had enlisted the help of  four six-foot tall, burly members of the Royal Irish Constabulary and a young lad called Joe Blain. All five hung on to the Mayfly as the wind took it up into the air. The four constables promptly let go, leaving Joe to hang on and bring the glider back down to the ground. Lilian concluded that if the Mayfly could carry the weight of five men, it could quite easily manage an engine.

Lilian ordered a two-stroke air-cooled engine, from the newly founded A.V Roe Aircraft Company in Manchester, for the sum of £100. After a delay in the order, Lilian, who was unable to wait any longer, travelled by ferry to England and returned to Ireland on the boat train, with her new 20hp engine and adjustable-pitch propeller, much to the astonishment of the other passengers. She wrote in a letter to Flight magazine that 'it fitted very neatly into a railway carriage and also an outside car.'

Once fitted, the engine was slow to start and the vibration loosened the bolts and snapped the wires between the struts, so Lilian made further alterations to strengthen the biplane, which included fitting a T-bar yoke and a tricycle undercarriage. The Mayfly was dismantled and moved to Lord O'Neill's parkland at Randalstown, as the field at Carnmoney was too small for it's first flight. The only drawback of the park was the resident bull, but undeterred Lilian wrote, 'If it gets annoyed and charges I shall have every inducement to fly!'

As the engine was housed behind the pilot, the Mayfly was started by Joe Blain standing between the tailbooms and swinging the propeller. At first the flight wasn't very smooth with the plane making faltering hops at short distance, but after several attempts it flew to an altitude of 30 feet and stayed in the air for a quarter of a mile. Lilian was delighted and in disbelief  kept checking the wheel tracks on the wet grass to confirm that she had taken off. 'I have flown!' she wrote in a letter to  Flight magazine.

Lilian Bland in her overalls which she advised were, ' the best things to wear.'

Lilian continued experimenting with further flights and planned to improve the design of the Mayfly. She started a business offering her biplanes for £250 (without an engine) and gliders for £80, but this was short lived as her father who had been worried about her precarious exploits, bought her a Model T Ford motor car. She taught herself to drive and became Ford's first agent in Northern Ireland.

In October 1911, Lilian married her cousin Charles Loftus Bland and emigrated to Canada. She returned to Kent in 1935, where she lived with her brother Captain Robert Bland, until the 1950s, when she retired to Cornwall, She died at the age of 92 on 11th May 1971 and is buried in the churchyard in Sennen, near Land's End.


  1. My goodness what a mine of information your blog is! This is someone else new to me. What a woman! Fascinating! xx

  2. Thanks Teresa. I was thinking about you today and hoping that you're all bug free! xx

    1. Aw thank you, Deb. Not quite yet - I was the last one standing this morning! xx

    2. Oh no! I hope you're all better for Christmas.xx

  3. What a fascinating story. Thank you. It always amazes me how many remarkable people there were during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods about whom we never usually hear.

    1. Thanks for dropping by John. Happy New Year too!

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