Lilian Bland was a woman before her time – a photographer, markswoman, martial artist, sports journalist, wearer of dungarees and a smoker – and no stranger to raising the eyebrows of those around her. Most notably, however, she became the first woman in Ireland to build and fly an aircraft, and quite possibly world’s first woman to build her own airplane.
Michael McCaughan, keeper of transport at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra, Co Down, referred to Bland as “the flying feminist”.
“Her stock was a bit idiosyncratic,” he said. “She wore dungarees and was able to work with machines.”
Bland was born in Kent in 1878. After her mother died, she moved to Carnmoney near Belfast, where she was raised by her aunt and her father.
The flying bug bit Bland around 1910, when Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel, and after the beginning of the flight era in 1903. That was the year the Wright brothers in North Carolina in the US made their first controlled and sustained flight.
Bland was among flight enthusiasts who began to build their own aircraft, she constructing hers out of spruce, bamboo and other materials. The result was her experimental glider and the first byplane constructed in Ireland, the Mayfly.
Bland’s aircraft passed its first test on Carnmoney Hill in 1910, where it became briefly airborne. The next job was to add a 20 horse-power engine which would further challenge the plane’s structure.
This task required improvisation when a fuel tank failed to arrive in time for ground tests. Bland then used her aunt’s ear trumpet to pour petrol from a whiskey bottle into the system. The new engine enabled the Mayfly to remain airborne for more than a quarter of a mile and at an altitude of about 30 feet. The accomplishment marked Bland’s acceptance into the aviation fraternity.
Bland didn’t spend a long time in aviation, though, probably to the relief of her father, who believed his daughter was putting herself at risk of serious injury. He bought her a car and insisted she leave aviation. She did, but not before having gone into business a plane builder, advertising her biplanes for £250 and gliders for £80.
Bland married a cousin and emigrated to Canada in 1912, where she is reported to have turned her hand to farming.
In 1935, she moved back to the UK and settled in Cornwall to pursue “gambling, painting and gardening”. She died there in 1971, aged 92.
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With thanks to Mary Mulvihill of Ingenious Ireland for providing the material for this profile from her book Lab Coats and Lace (2009).
Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths