The first woman in the world to design, build, and fly an airplane was Irish.
On an August morning in 1910 what sounded more like a large-scale catfight than an engine, revved in Randallstown, Co. Antrim in Northern Ireland. Lilian Bland gave it a little more gas and the Mayfly moved forward, faster and little faster, until it lifted itself off the grassy track and rose up into the air. Giving it a few more tries that day, she grinned from ear to ear. She had done it! She was the first woman in Ireland to fly an airplane and the first woman in the world to design, build, and fly one.
Lilian was never one to hesitate when she got an idea to do something. By the time she was 32, the year she flew, she had already traveled throughout Europe, been a sports photographer and journalist, a proficient hunter and crack shot, and horse trainer and rider. Daring and unconventional as she could be for a woman at the turn of the 20th century, she walked about in breeches, smoked cigarettes, rode astride (not sidesaddle) and practiced Jiu-Jitsu.
And when her uncle sent her a postcard picturing Louis Blériot’s aeroplane that had crossed the English Channel in July 1909, she remembered the seagulls she had photographed in Scotland and decided what her next project would be.
Early in 1910, she started building a kite-like model biplane out of bamboo, spruce, fabric, and wire. She steamed the wood to curve it’s 6-foot wingspan like the seagull wings she had observed. It flew beautifully.
Next she built her design into a glider with a 27-foot wingspan and added a bicycle handlebar to steer it. This wafted into to the air as well, but she needed to know if it could hold the weight of an engine. So she enlisted the help of four burly constables and a gardener named Joe Blain.
With all the guys hanging on to the outside of the plane, she took off, and the whole shebang lifted into the air for a few seconds, until the constables got spooked and let go. Only Joe stuck around for the rest of the ride, but it was enough to convince Lilian that adding the engine would work.
So she sent to England for a gas engine and a propeller. When she heard her order was delayed, she went to the factory in Manchester herself and brought it back by boat and train even though the gas tank was still not finished. No worries. When she got home she just cobbled one together from a whiskey bottle and her deaf aunt’s ear trumpet. This girl was just unstoppable.
After waiting for the windy rainy weather to clear and puzzling through several mechanical difficulties for weeks, finally the day arrived when she could test her creation with a real flight. The Mayfly (named after the doubters around her said it “may fly or may not”) would have its moment of glory.
With the engine situated behind her, Lilian settled into the pilot’s seat and called out to her helpful friend Joe Blain to give the propeller a spin. The engine kicked in with a roar and she was off the ground for at least a quarter mile and 30 feet high.
“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,” she said.
From Airplanes to Automobiles
Lilian’s flying career ended soon after it began. Her father’s nerves had had all they could take, and he offered to buy her a Ford Model T if only she would give up flying airplanes. As a woman of many interests and aware of the huge expense required to take her Mayfly to the next level, she accepted pretty willingly.
Cars would be her next adventure. She taught herself to drive and started a Ford dealership in Belfast.
A Simpler But Harder Life
In 1912 she married her cousin Charles Bland and emigrated to Western Canada where together they built a homestead in a remote area. Of course she took her camera with her and made more than 400 photos while she lived there, recording their rustic pioneer life on the Canadian frontier.
One picture shows her true to form in overalls with an early motorized farm tractor that looks similar to a push lawnmower. The caption says it had several different attachments that could accomplish various farm tasks. She was also known for her expertise in repairing boat motors.
In 1913 their daughter Patricia was born. Lilian captured many adorable photos of her playing on their farm with lots of dogs, cats, cows and horses. Patsy, as they called her, took after her adventurous mom wearing pants and working and playing hard in the wilderness. The photos in a gallery here are full of fun and smiles.
Then in September 1929 tragedy struck. Patricia, Lilian’s dear daughter, best friend, and constant companion, died of a tetanus infection at the age of sixteen. The disease leads to a terribly painful end and her parents were not able to provide her with medical help in their remote location.
Lilian was devastated.
“A child of the woods, a born naturalist and artist, she was yet my right hand in all practical work, with the skill and energy of an old-timer, utterly unselfish, calm and brave in the face of danger. She died as bravely as she had lived, without the help that science and civilization might have given to dull the agony. Death in connection with one so full of life seemed impossible — unreal,” Lilian wrote in a letter some months later.
Even before Patricia’s death, money had become scarce for the family and life for Lilian seemed nothing but day after day of grinding work. Finally in 1935 with her marriage failing, Lilian decided to move to Kent, England, where she was born. She lived with her brother there until the 1950s when she retired to a cottage in Cornwall. She spent her days gardening until she died in 1971 at the age of 92.
In 1964 she received a letter from a firm in Dublin which must have done some research into the history of aviation in Ireland. It said, “I can at last send you photocopies of the local paper dealing with Harry Ferguson’s first flight and then yours. You will see that you were the first biplane, but he was the first aeroplane proper. At any rate you must have been the first woman in the world to build and fly an aeroplane, which isn’t so bad.”
Lilian Bland and her Mayfly are commemorated with this sculpture designed by Skelton Rainey. You can see it in Glengormley Park, located in Glengormley, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland.
The Craobh Dugan-O'Looney blog is written by Sue Smith Romero. Questions? Corrections? Send them on to her at firstname.lastname@example.org