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The Flying Feminist



Lillian Bland was born in Maidstone, Kent on September 28th 1878. She was the third child of John Humphry Bland and his wife Emily Charlotte Madden Bland. They were dependents of Anglo-Irish gentry dating back as far as 1670. She grew up in Willington House.


In 1900 her father moved his family back to his native Carnmoney in Co. Atrim. It was here that Lillian became interested in photography. Her favorite place was atom Carnmoney Hill where she observed the bird soaring overhead and photographed them. It was also around this time that she began working as a sports journalist and press photographer for various London newspapers.

She lived a rather unconventional lifestyle, particularly for this period, engaging in activities that were not considered appropriate for a ‘young lady’ in the Edwardian period. She wore trousers, smoked, hunted, fished, rode astride her favorite steed, she loved to shoot and tinkered with automobile engines, practiced martial arts, and she was extremely skilled at all of the above!


“There is no more delightful sensation than the long easy stride of a thoroughbred under one, when one can sit down in the saddle and enjoy a good gallop, and feel the splendid freedom of movement in the horse, and one’s own freedom to enjoy it, without being perched up on a side saddle, which always makes one feel separated from the horse, and not in harmony with its every motion,” she wrote in a booklet called “The Art of Riding.” In everything she did, Bland dove in, fully. She had few issues thumbing her nose at society!


Her life was unfolding in the most fun and unconventionality. Then, in 1908, she received a post card from France from her Uncle Robert. He spoke about the wonder of flight. This piqued Lilian’s interest greatly, to say the least.


The following year, she attended the first official aviation meeting that was held in Blackpool. She was held in wrapt attention and took copious and detailed notes as to the measurements and dimensions of the aircraft that were on display there. She observed aviators in flight, as she had the birds just a few years prior. She devoured all the information she could from books, magazines and especially Flight magazine.


Bland began to work on designing a full-size glider in the estate’s workshop, which was left behind by her late uncle General William James Smythe, a member of the Royal Society, replete with a bench and tools. At first, she built a biplane glider. She figured it it flew she would add an engine later. It had a wingspan of six feet. She flew this successfully as a kite.


Now she was even more determined and on fire. Her next project was a full sized glider. Using bamboo, spruce, elm and ash. Remembering those seagulls she had watched by the hour in Scotland, remembering the curvature at the tip of their wings, she steamed the ash to bend it into a similar shape. She used spruce for the ribs and stanchions and unbleached calico that was soaked in a mixture of gelatin and formalin, making it waterproof. The skids were also made ash with the outriggers made of bamboo. The bed for the engine was made from American elm and fastened securely to the upper and lower wings. The fuel tank was in the chassis and the canvas pilot’s seat was enclosed and tightly fastened by four straps to provide safety for the pilot and keep her from falling out. For the controls, she used a bicycle handlebar: Turning the handle to the right raised the right-hand elevator on the tail and depressed the left, as the wires were crossed. When completed the glider had a wingspan of 29 feet, 7 inches. It weighed 200 pounds. There were many doubters that expressed their belief that it would never fly. Lillian was determined and had a great sense of irony, naming her plane, Mayfly -it may fly, it may not. “Hoots and derision—which did not worry me at all,”


Back on Carnmoney Hill where she had spent hours watching birds in flight and photographing nature, Mayfly had its trial run. Lilian had the assistance of four six foot tall members of the Royal Irish Constabulary plus one other young lad called Joe Blain. What a sight they were as all five clung to Mayfly as the wind took her up into the air. The four constables let go immediately once the was airborne, leaving Joe to hang on for dear life and bring the glider back down to earth. From this Lilian concluded if Mayfly cold carry the weight of four men and a boy, she could easily manage the weight of an engine. Back to the workshop!


She ordered a two stroke air cooled engine from the new company, A.V. Roe, in Manchester, paying somewhere around $100. The order was delayed for some unknown reason, and Lilian became impatient. She traveled to England by ferry returning to Ireland by rail with her new 20hp engine and adjustable pitch propeller, astonishing many of her fellow travelers. She wrote to Flight magazine: “it fitted very neatly into a railway carriage and also an outside car.”


By the time she arrived home with her 20-horsepower engine, the night was as dark as wet tar, and the rain rippled down in sheets. She had not completed the fuel tank yet, but even without a tank, Bland was eager to start her plane: She connected the engine to an old whiskey bottle, and used her deaf aunt’s ear trumpet as tubing to funnel gas into the engine. The noise of the engine was overpowering, like a cat fight boomed through microphones. Locals stumbled from their beds to peer through the foggy windows, worried one of the nearby mills had had an explosion. After mere moments, Bland shut it off. “I think I will wait for the tank, and as the engine is English its sense of humour is not devoloped [sic] sufficiently for these proceedings,” she quipped.

Once installed the engine was slow to start and the vibrations loosened bolts and snapped wires that ran between the struts. Better to have this happen on land than in the air! She made alterations to strengthen the plane. She fit a T-bar yoke and a tricycle undercarriage. She had dismantled the craft and moved it to Lord O’Neils parkland at Randalstown where it was reassembled. The field at Carnmoney was too small for the first flight. The one concern about the new location was a resident bull, but she was undeterred and wrote: “If it gets annoyed and charges, I shall have every inducement to fly!”


Finally, in September of 1910, the day was calm, and she was ready. Bland climbed into the cockpit. Joe Blain was once again enlisted. He started the engine which was housed behind the pilot. He stood between the tail booms swinging the propeller. Initially that first flight was not terribly smooth as the plane made faltering hops and bumps but after several attempts, Lilian got it up to an altitude of 30 feet and stayed up in the air for a quarter of a mile. A major triumph! She was overjoyed and yet in disbelief that she had actually accomplished it. She kept checking the tracks of the wheels on the wet grass to confirm that she had actually taken off! “I have flown!” She wrote to Flight magazine in a letter.


Her experiments with flight continued and she improved the design of the Mayfly. She started a business offering her biplanes, without an engine) for about $250 and gliders for about $80. Her business was short lived though. It seems her father had been very concerned about her precarious exploits and bought her a Model T Ford automobile. Of course, she taught herself to drive and then went on to become Ford’s first agent in Northern Ireland.


She was no full-blown aviator, nor was she just a photographer or journalist or artist or martial artist. She was myriad things, at a time when women were largely expected to be just two: wife and mother.


“I had proved wrong the many people who had said that no woman could build an aeroplane, and that gave me great satisfaction.”