Lilian Bland was the first woman in Ireland to design, build, and fly her own engine-powered airplane. She was possibly even the first woman in the world to do so.
With a work history which included Journalism under her belt, Bland wrote about her plane, “The Mayfly,” for Flight International Magazine 1910-12-17 (pages 3-5):
Lilian Emily Bland was born in Kent, Great Britain in 1878 to John Humphrey and Emily Charlotte Madden Bland. By the time she was 20 years old, she was well traveled all around Europe, well educated, having studied art in Paris and music in Rome, and familiar with religious and philosophical texts. She rebuffed many of the customary social norms assigned to women; she was not only a successful journalist and press photographer, but also smoked, cussed on occasion, tinkered with
automobile engines, wore breeches, rode astride horses instead of sitting sidesaddle, practiced Martial Arts, and was very skilled at hunting and fishing.
After the death of her mother, Lilian moved moved to Ireland with her father, his native country.
In the summer of 1909, Lilian was staying with friends in Scotland where she studied and photographed seagulls and wondered what made their flight possible. Her uncle Robert sent a postcard from Paris which contained a diagram of the first plane to cross the English Channel; Louis Blériot’s monoplane. Blériot’s type XI crossed the distance of 25 miles between Calais and Dover in 36 minues and 30 seconds.
In October of that year, she attended the first official British aviation meeting held in Blackpool where she took down copious notes, drew diagrams and jotted down dimensions of the aeroplanes on display.
While she watched the pilots flying the planes, she took careful notes on their movements and their flying routines. Lilian grew excited with the idea of building and flying an aeroplane. She set about studying everything she could about flying in books and magazines, and soon began to draw the biplane she planned to build and fly.
On the estate’s large, well equipped workshop, left behind by her late uncle William Smythe, Lilian went to work. She remembered the shape and agility of the seagulls she’d watched in Scotland and shaped the ash to mimic the slight curve at the tips of the wings and soaked unbleached calico (a cotton material, heavier than muslin) in gelatin and formalin (a sort of liquefied formaldehyde) to make it waterproof, to use as the wing fabric. She used bicycle handlebars and copper wire as a steering mechanism for the plane. When finished, less than a year after beginning to sketch the design, the plane was 20′ 7″ across and weighed 200 pounds. With a bit of humor she christened it Mayfly because it May fly or it May not.
It did fly. At least, the maiden flight of the Mayfly glided, as an engine was yet to be installed. Following the success of the initial test, whereby volunteers amounting to the weight of an engine were asked to grip the wings while the glider ascended, Lilian ordered an engine for her biplane, installed it and, when across the ocean, in America, Amelia Earhart was but 12 years old, became the first woman to design, build, and fly an airplane.
Lilian’s piloting career was laid to rest fairly quickly. Her father, always concerned about Lilian’s unladylike endeavors, offered her a motor car if she would stop dabbling with aeroplanes. In 1910, when the most common mode of transportation was still a horse and buggy, an automobile of her own was too much for Lilian to resist and she walked away from her plane to drive her car and run the first Ford dealership in Northern Ireland. Before long she married her cousin, Charles Bland. They moved to Quatsino Sound, Vancouver Isand in British Columbia where Lilian’s skills came to be quite useful in homesteading an untouched land.
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