Againats popular wisdom and flying a plane made from bamboo, wire and bike handlebars, a Co Antrim woman blazed a sky trail for aviation and for the independence of women, writes Bette Browne
A daring young woman in her flying machine soared into aviation history above her Co Antrim home 109 years ago. Lilian Bland became the first woman in the world to design, build, and pilot a plane.
She was born on September 28, 1878, and three decades later the Anglo-Irish woman confounded an incredulous aviation world and achieved a feat so daring it is still acclaimed as an audacious triumph.
The dream that took Lilian Bland skyward in the summer of 1910, less than a decade after the Wright brothers had made the world’s first flight, was inspired by the birds she saw flying over the hills of Antrim and by a postcard she received from Paris.
From the beginning, Bland was fired by an unconventional dream, and blazed an unconventional trail. She smoked cigarettes, dressed in trousers, fixed motorcar engines, rode horses, and went hunting, fishing, and shooting.
She was born in Kent in England and in 1900, after the death of her mother, her father moved the family back to his native Carnmoney, a green and hilly oasis about 12km from Belfast. Bland became interested in photography and often wandered over Carnmoney Hill, where she would observe and photograph the birds soaring overhead and ponder the wonders of flight.
By 1908, at the age of 30, she had established herself as a sports journalist and photographer for a number of London newspapers, and it was around this time she got a postcard from Paris that fascinated her.
It came from her uncle Robert and showed the details and dimensions of the plane in which French aviator Louis Blériot became the first person to fly across the English Channel on July 25, 1909. Soon, Bland became determined to turn her own aviation dream into a reality.
She attended the first official aviation meeting held in Blackpool in 1909, where she took 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”.
Soon, she set to work in her uncle’s well-equipped workshop, and began to design and build her own plane.
First she built a biplane glider, with a wingspan of six feet, which she flew successfully as a kite. This encouraged her to start work on a full-size glider. She used bamboo, spruce, elm and ash, and, remembering the birds over the hills of Antrim, she steamed the ash to bend it into shape, copying the slight curvature at the tip of the birds’ wings.
The engine bed was made from 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 20ft and 7in, and weighed 90kg. Then, in the face of doubts among many in the aviation world about her endeavour and with exquisite irony, she named her machine Mayfly—suggesting it may or may not fly over the Irish sky.
Mayfly had its trial flight on the slopes of Carnmoney Hill, where Bland had enlisted the help of four burly RIC policemen and a young gardener named Joe Blain.
All five hung on to Mayfly as the wind took it up into the air. The four RIC men promptly let go, leaving Joe to hang on and bring the glider back down to the ground. Bland concluded that if Mayfly could carry the weight of five men, it could quite easily manage the weight of an engine.
She ordered a two-stroke air-cooled engine from a company in Manchester for £100. And waited. After a delay in the order, she refused to wait any longer and took matters into her own hands.
She 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. Once fitted, the engine was slow to start and the vibration loosened the bolts and snapped the wires between the struts. Bland made more alterations to strengthen the biplane, fitting a T-bar yoke and a tricycle undercarriage.
However, Carnmoney Hill proved too small for an engine-powered flight so she persuaded a landowner to allow her to use his estate in Randalstown for her flight. The only drawback was the resident bull, but undeterred she remarked “if it gets annoyed and charges I shall have every inducement to fly!”
The bull behaved but the weather didn’t. Five weeks of rain and wind prevented her from taking off. Then mechanical difficulties with the propeller delayed her.
Finally, on August 31, 1910, the conditions were right. The engine was positioned behind the pilot so the Mayfly was started by Joe Blain, who stood between the tail booms and swung the propeller, starting the aircraft. It lifted off and Bland piloted her way into history.
She made the first of several motor-powered flights, rising to about 30ft high and travelling for a quarter mile.
“I could hardly believe it,” she said afterwards. “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 recorded her historic exploits in a number of letters to the British aviation journal Flight, and it was while working on that magazine many years ago that I first came across the details of her daring feat over Ireland.
“I have flown!” she declared triumphantly in a letter to the journal after her historic feat.
She continued experimenting with further flights and planned to improve the design of Mayfly. She started a business offering her biplanes for £250 (without an engine) and gliders for £80, but this venture was shortlived. Her father, tried to lure her away from aviation by offering to buy her a Model T Ford.
“I accepted my father’s offer,” she said later.
In October 1911, Bland married her cousin Charles Loftus Bland and left Ireland for Canada. The couple had one child, Patricia, who died of tetanus at the age of 16. After her daughter’s death, the couple separated and Bland moved to England. In the 1950s she retired to Cornwall.
“I keep busy, I have my plants, I paint and I gamble,” she said in an interview in 1966. “I back five horses a day — with success, I may add, and great fun!”
Her words could have served as a fitting epitaph. Five years later, on May 11, 1971, Bland died, aged 92.