Lilian Bland (1878–1971) was the first woman to design, build, and fly an aircraft. She was working in Ireland as a sports journalist and photographer when she received a postcard from a relative that celebrated the first flight across the English Channel, piloted by Frenchman Louis Blériot in 1909. The postcard showed the design dimensions of the monoplane used for the flight. Fascinated by the possibility of human flight and an able automobile mechanic, Bland decided on the spot to design and build her own aircraft. Over time, she drafted her own design for a small biplane powered by a tiny engine, and she succeeded in building testing, and flying it within the year. Along with this world record, Bland was the first woman to fly over Ireland, and her airplane was the country's first powered biplane.
Lilian Bland was an adventurous, unconventional young lady for her time. Born on September 22, 1878, in Maidstone, Kent, England, she experienced a Victorian childhood but entered adulthood during the reign of King Edward. Women in the 19th and early 20th centuries were expected to tend to the home by keeping it clean and comfortable, provide meals, engage in ornamental crafts such as embroidery, and raise their children. In stark contrast, Bland remained unmarried until her thirties, wore pants like a man, and rode horses astride rather than sidesaddle, as was expected of ladies. She also hunted, practiced jiu jitsu, and tinkered with automobile engines. Well educated and artistic, she eventually became a sports journalist, contributing articles and photographs on horse racing, fox hunting, and polo to newspapers in London.
Bland's parents were affluent, and as she noted in a letter, by the time she was twenty she “had been to many of the cities of Europe, studied art in Paris, studied music in Rome, life everywhere, studied the various religious sects, ancient and modern, read the works of the philosophers of Germany, France and Italy and found no truth or satisfaction in them.” Her mother, Emily Charlotte Madden Bland, a society lady, died while Bland was still exploring Europe. Grief-stricken, her father, John Humphrey Bland, left the family home in England and returned to his native Ireland, staying with his widowed sister Sarah, at Tobercooran House in Carnmoney, a town north of Belfast. Bland joined them upon returning to Great Britain, setting up a dark room for her photography (photographs were then developed using chemicals) and started her journalism career. In addition to gaining respect as a photographer, she also wrote articles about sporting events, along with observational pieces on bird flight. Tobercooran House, thanks to her late uncle, had a well-equipped workshop, stables, and carriage house, all of which would come in handy for Bland's future project.
The first decades of the 20th century were wildly exciting for the budding aviation community. Inventors and mechanics were vying to build and fly the longestand highest-flying aircraft, and the world was abuzz with meetings, exhibitions, and publications devoted to the topic of flight. Bland arrived home with countless ideas and the first of many calculations, supply lists, and sketches of the biplane (two-winged aircraft) she planned to build. She subscribed to Flight magazine and avidly read each issue, contributing letters and articles as she worked on completing her project.
Bland's first task was to construct a flyable scale model as a way to test her design. After reading about Orville and Wilbur Wright, brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who had made the first controlled and sustained flight on December 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, she designed and built a model biplane with a 6-foot wingspan and flew it like a kite, successfully. From there, she refined her design, purchasing spruce, bamboo, ash, and elm for the airplane's frame, unbleached muslin to cover the wings, and wire and fittings for construction of a full-scale glider. Bland constructed the craft section by section in the estate workshop and then assembled the craft in the coach house. As a steering mechanism, she used a bicycle handlebar attached to an ingenious system of pulleys. As the aircraft took shape, she named her project the Mayfly as a play on the insect's name, humorously suggesting that the airplane “may fly”(or might not).
Finally, the engineless Mayfly was ready for its trial run as a glider. Enlisting the help of four local policemen as well as a boy on the garden staff at Tobercooran House, she hauled the Mayfly up a nearby hill and pointed it into the wind. With the four men and the boy holding tightly to the wings, the craft lifted off the ground like a kite, proving itself able to carry the combined weight of a small engine and pilot aloft.
Bland now ordered a 20-horse power, two-stroke, aircooled Avro engine from England. When shipment was delayed, she traveled to England to pick it up herself, shepherding it home by boat, railway, and automobile. She started attaching the engine to the Mayfly, lacking only the fuel tank and tubing that was still in transit from England. Impatient, she improvised with a whiskey bottle for the tank, and her aunt's ear trumpet (a small, curved horn used as a hearing aid) for the fuel line. The arrangement did not work well, and in addition, vibrations from the engine rattled and loosened several nuts and bolts holding the Mayfly together. More refinements were obviously needed.
An aristocratic landowner in a nearby town heard about Bland's biplane project and offered her the use of his estate's deer park, which had sufficient room for a landing strip. With the poor weather and limited space available at Tobercooran House, the man's offer was a welcome one. The one downside was that a large bull roamed freely on the estate, but Bland decided that, should the bull give her any trouble, she would have that much more inducement to take to the air.
There were further delays due to weeks of stormy weather. Finally, the Mayfly was ready and and the weather perfect for the first flight. Bland and her crew disassembled the biplane and transported it to the deer park. After helping to reassemble it, the crew helped stabilize the Mayfly as its builder took her place in the pilot's seat. One of the men turned the propeller, starting the engine. The Mayfly moved forward and lifted off the ground. When it settled down and Bland cut the engine, she ran back across the field to see whether there were grooves from the aircraft's skids (it had no wheels) or whether the craft had actually lifted off the ground. The signs were clear: Scarcely a year after beginning her project, Bland had flown an airplane she designed and built.
Further flights followed, with the Mayfly rising as much as 30 feet off the ground and remaining airborne for approximately a quarter of a mile. Bland wrote an article detailing her design and flight results for Flight magazine; then she set about designing a more robust version of the Mayfly. The craft's wooden frame was at its limit, she realized, and would not support a heavier engine. Once the frame was perfected, she would start an aircraft manufacturing company. She confidently placed ads offering this improved version of her airplane for sale.
Meanwhile, Bland's father had grown concerned about his daughter's increasingly risky venture in aviation. There was physical danger in flying, considerable expense involved in manufacture, and furthermore, the pursuit was unladylike. He offered her a new Ford motorcar if she would give up the idea. “I did not need much persuasion,” Bland later wrote in a letter. “Although the ‘Mayfly’ had flown, I knew she was underpowered. She was more a grasshopper than an aircraft, but a more powerful engine would have wrecked the superstructure and, in view of the cost involved in remedying that, I accepted my father's offer. In any case I had proved wrong the many people who had said that no woman could build an aeroplane, and that gave me great satisfaction.”
The pioneering life provided a satisfying challenge for the adventurous Bland, but farming took its toll over time due to the constant labor and financial insecurity. In addition, the couple lost their only daughter, Patrick Lilian Bland, at age sixteen, from tetanus, a bacterial illness contracted from soil, dust, and manure. In 1935, she left both her husband and Canada and booked passage for England, where she lived with her brother in Kent and worked as a landscape gardener. In 1955 she retired to a cottage on a windswept bluff in Cornwall, where she enjoyed gardening, visiting her friends, and gambling on horse races. She died there on May 11, 1971, aged 92.
Byrne, Liam, History of Aviation in Ireland, Blackwater Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1980.
Warner, Guy, Lilian Bland: The First Woman in the World to Design, Build and Fly an Aeroplane, Ulster Aviation Society, 2010.
Flight, December 17, 1910, Lilian Bland, “The Mayfly: The First Irish Biplane and How She Was Built,” pp. 1025–1029.
History Ireland, January-February, 2010, Helen Andrews, “From the Files of the DIB.”