Ireland’s First Female Pilot

By Peter P Dobbing

I have met many wonderful people in Ireland. I have also written about a few. Unfortunately, some of these lived before I was born, so we didn’t actually get to meet. But I wish we had, as we could have talked the night away. 

I could, tell the story of meeting a postman to ask directions in Kilmacanogue; we were still putting the world to rights several hours later when my wife, waiting in the car, came to fetch me. But that’s a really long story.

The person under discussion; a lady of some prominence, was in fact Anglo Irish but then an author cannot have everything. Lilian Emily Bland was born on 28 September, 1878 in Kent, the youngest child of John Bland (1828–1919) of Fernagh, Co. Antrim and Emily Madden of Norfolk. 

Her father was a renowned artist with at least one canvas in the Ulster Museum. She was the granddaughter of Robert Wintringham Bland, the Dean of Belfast and was raised by her aunt, Sarah Maria Wintringham Smythe (d1918), widow of General WJ Smythe RA. FRS. of Carnmoney, Co Antrim. 

All in all, the young lady had a fair start in life. The Bland’s are an interesting family, originating from the area of Sedburgh West Riding of Yorkshire during Saxon times, their history can be traced in Ireland and England from Elizabeth I onwards. 

The very early life of Lilian is not too well documented but it is known that she had ambitions to become a jockey, already being a superb rider. Said to be a real fiery lady, when this career was denied her – deemed entirely unsuitable for young ladies by her father – she took up sports writing and photography for London newspapers. She did very well, writing several books on riding techniques as well as her newspaper writing columns. One critic claimed that her photographs of hunting captured muscle movements in horses unseen by the human eye.

Interest in flight dynamics stimulated

It was while photographing birds in the Scottish Isles that her interest in flight dynamics became stimulated and on seeing a postcard picture of Louis Blériot Flying the Channel, she said to herself: “I could do that”.  

The postcard gave rough dimensions of Blériot’s machine and back home she built a scale model. Lilian’s next move was to attend the first British aviation meeting being held in Blackpool in October 1909 and returning to the family estate, Tobercooran House Carnmoney, there was no stopping her. First, with very little help, she constructed a biplane glider roughly based on wings of the gulls she had observed soaring high in the Scottish skies.

The various parts of the glider were made from spruce, ash and bamboo all steamed to shape and joined with sockets, wire and stringers. The entire assembly was then covered in cloth – possibly linen – and then coated with a photographic solution such as albumen made from the whites of eggs to ensure the result was waterproof and not porous to air, spruce skids formed the landing gear. 

The substance used today for the fabric covering on aircraft wings is dope, a cellulose acetate – unfortunately for Lilian, it was not invented until about 1912.

The 27 and a half foot span biplane was completed in 1910 and Lilian named it Mayfly, because as she said: “It may fly but then it may not”. 

In the day, self-made aircraft with the flying characteristics of a brick were not uncommon. But Lilian had no cause for concern, with the aid of a couple of strong men the Mayfly was launched into the winds blowing up the face of Carnmoney Hill and soared without fault, only a few breakages and repairs needing attention. Lilian’s next step was to obtain from Alliott Verdon-Roe (Avro) in England a lightweight engine that would develop 20 HP at 1000 r.p.m. To ensure that Mayfly could lift the weight of the engine, Lilian persuaded four stalwart 6 ft. members of the Royal Irish Constabulary to hold the wings in a stiff breeze. 

The machine dutifully rose and a disaster was only narrowly averted as the policemen preferring their feet on the ground dropped off one by one. Satisfied that there was sufficient lift to accommodate the engine, this was duly fitted but the first run was a disaster, the propeller shattered. 

A replacement variable pitch version was quickly obtained from Avro but then there was another problem. The integrated fuel tank and supply pipe had not arrived, the project could have beenwhi delayed by several months. 

Lilian then showed her ability for sideways thinking, something all engineers need to master. She used a whisky bottle as a fuel tank and fed the engine by way of her deaf aunt’s ear trumpet. Good job there was no health and safety about in those days. 

Eventually, the proper fuel tank and feed were fitted and testing began in earnest. With the engine running there were many problems with vibration and the snapping of wires, together with self undoing of nuts and bolts. 

At this juncture a local landowner Lord O’Neill offered the use of his park at Randalstown, which would make a fine landing field. As it happened there was a large bull in the field and it was a 12 mile cycle ride to get there but Lilian was not daunted. 

In August 1910, the weather was calm so Lilian in Mayfly powered up and after a run of 30 yards rose gently into the air, in doing so Lilian became the first woman in the world to build and fly her own aeroplane. 

After several short hops Lilian gradually increased the distances and flying times but she realized that Mayfly was underpowered and a bigger engine would require a new design and a lot of money.

At the same time her father was very concerned about her safety and bribed her with the present of a motor car in order to stop flying. Liking the car so much she taught herself to drive and began running a Ford agency in Belfast.

Family disapproval of such ‘unladylike’ activities led to her marrying a Canadian cousin with whom she settled in Vancouver, the pair establishing a farm in quite rough country, which suited her fiery spirit. Lilian returned to England in 1935 before retiring to Cornwall in 1955. She died in in Penzance in 1955.