LILIAN BLAND / PIONEERING AVIATRIX

LILIAN BLAND

Pioneering aviatrix, journalist, photographer & author

Antrim / England / Cornwall

1878 - 1971

By the time celebrated aviator Amelia Earhart reached her 12th birthday, Irish woman Lilian Bland had already become the first woman in the world to design, build and fly her own aeroplane! A spirited woman, she was also one of the first female journalists in the world, an excellent shot, a keen horsewoman and was widely admired for her photographic skills.

Lilian developed an interest in photography, disappearing up to Carnmoney Hill in Antrim where she would take photos, mostly of birds which sparked her curiosity in aviation. Refusing to conform to gender rules of the time, Lilian wore breeches, smoked cigarettes and wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty – she was often to be found tinkering around with car engines or riding horses (never in a side-saddle manner!)

Inspired by the pioneering cross-channel flight in 1909 by Louis Blériot, Lilian made it her business to find out the dimensions of his monoplane with the aim of building a to scale model of her own. After attending the first British aviation meeting in Blackpool in October 1909, Lilian returned to the family estate, Tobercooran House, Carnmoney, Co. Antrim, full of ideas to design, build and fly the first powered machine in Ireland. She constructed a biplane glider from bamboo, ash and elm which she humorously named ‘Mayfly’, in that it ‘may fly, may not fly’!

She purchased a 20hp two-stroke engine for ‘Mayfly’, but the long delay in receiving the fuel tank prompted her to devise a temporary fuel system consisting of a whiskey bottle and her aunt’s ear-trumpet. In September 1910 she flew her plane for the first time – her maiden flight lasting for 30 yards, a very respectable distance for her first time up!

By her early thirties, Lilian had also established herself as a sports journalist and press photographer for London newspapers. She took incredible photos of hunting in action and sports events. One critic praised her ability to capture “muscle movements in horses unseen by the human eye.” 

However, aviation remained her true passion. Later in life, she started her own business selling her own biplanes and gliders. Her father, worried about his daughter’s dangerous flying exploits, promised her a Model T Ford motor car if she gave it up. She did, taught herself to drive her new car and became Ford’s first agent in Northern Ireland.

 She married her cousin and emigrated to Canada, where she helped her husband establish a farm in Vancouver. She returned to Cornwall where she died at the age of 92.