Lilian Bland (22 September 1878 – 11 May 1971) was an Anglo-Irish journalist and aviator who, in 1910–11, became one of the first women in the world to design, build, and fly an aircraft.
Bland was born in Maidstone, Kent on 22 September 1878, to a family of Anglo-Irish gentry, the third child of John Humphrey Bland and his wife Emily Charlotte (née Madden) and lived at Willington House, Willington Street (formerly, Willington Lane). Around the turn of the century, she began working as a journalist and press photographer for various London newspapers; she lived an unconventional lifestyle for the period, smoking, wearing trousers, and practising martial arts.
Between 1900 and 1906, following the death of her mother, Bland and her father moved to Tobercorran House in Carnmoney, north of Belfast, to live with her aunt Sarah. Sarah Bland had married General William James Smythe, who had died in 1887 leaving no children, and the two siblings had decided to set up house together. From here, Bland continued her photographic work, spending days on remote Scottish islands photographing seabirds.
Bland's uncle Robert sent her a postcard of the Blériot monoplane from Paris, inspiring her to take up flying. At this point, no one in Ireland had yet made a powered flight – the first would be Harry Ferguson, in December – and to make an aircraft would involve building it herself. Her late uncle, General William James Smythe, an astronomer and member of the Royal Society, had provided the house with a fully fitted workshop, and after some background reading on the Wright brothers, Bland successfully built a flyable model biplane.
From this, she progressed to a full-scale glider, which was built from spruce, bamboo and canvas, and completed early in 1910. The resulting Mayfly was tested by gliding it from Carnmoney Hill, being progressively strengthened and tested with heavier loads, until Bland felt it was strong enough to take an engine. She ordered a light 20 horsepower two-stroke engine from A. V. Roe & Co., and after some delays brought it to Carnmoney in July.
The horizontally opposed two-cylinder engine achieved 20 horsepower at 1000 rpm. Bland was eager to test the engine-powered aircraft before its petrol tank was ready, so she improvised: an empty whisky bottle was used instead, with Bland's deaf aunt's ear trumpet as the engine hose. This construction was not quite a success—the engine's vibrations compromised the security of the plane's nuts, bolts, and struts, and Bland's flight would have to wait.
After miserable weather, the first successful flight was made at Randalstown in late August, a short hop off the ground. Not only did this make Bland the first woman to fly an aircraft in Ireland, but the Mayfly also became the first powered biplane in Ireland. She continued experimenting with further flights, mostly around thirty feet (ten metres) in length, sometimes requiring examination of the ground to identify when the Mayfly had actually lifted off. It was clear, however, that the aircraft was not capable of much more, and would not cope with a larger engine. She began to plan an improved version, and offered examples for sale at £250 apiece plus engine to fund further development.
Bland's flying had been a source of some concern to her father, who saw it as unsafe as well as unseemly for a young woman. Around the end of the year, he persuaded her to give up the Mayfly in exchange for buying her a car. By April 1911 she was running a car dealership in Belfast, but in October gave up the business to marry her cousin Charles Loftus Bland, and emigrate to Canada.
Bland returned to the United Kingdom in 1935, settling in Kent, and in the 1950s retired to Cornwall. She died there, aged 92, on 11 May 1971. She is commemorated by an Ulster History Circle blue plaque at the family home at Carnmoney.
- Lewis (1964), p. 140
- McIlwaine (2010)
- Lewis (1964), p. 141
- Andrews (2010)
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- Lebow, Eileen (2002), Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation, Potomac Books, ISBN 9781574884821
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