Image courtesy of www.lilianbland.ieMuseum of Innovation
Lilian Bland was born in Kent but moved to Carnmoney, Northern Ireland when she was 28 after the death of her mother. Unlike many women of her day, she refused to conform, wearing trousers, smoking, and enjoyed many outdoor activities that were traditionally associated with men such as shooting, hunting and horse racing. Growing up in Victorian society, women were not given the same freedoms as men but Lilian refused to let these restrictions stop her from pursuing her interests.
Her adventurous spirit and fascination with new innovations in the world of technology and transport led her to design, build and fly her own aeroplane. Her father, concerned she may hurt herself engaging in such a dangerous activity, purchased a car for her but this only enabled Lilian to satisfy her love of speed further as she raced around the country roads near her home of Tobercorran House. She went on to set up a car dealership in Belfast in 1911.
Her father may have been somewhat relieved when Lilian decided to give up her business and marry her husband Charles Bland on 3 October 1911. But her thirst for adventure did not go away and the couple emigrated to Canada soon after, setting up a farm. Their daughter Patricia was born in 1913 but tragically died of tetanus at the age of 16. The couple separated shortly after and Lilian returned to England in 1935 where she spent the rest of her days enjoying gambling and gardening until her death at the age of 92.
Lilian’s curiosity around flying was first sparked when studying the flight of gulls on a trip to Scotland. When her uncle sent her a postcard of Louis Blériot’s monoplane with its dimensions from France, he could not have foreseen the impact this would have.
Never one to turn away from a challenge Lilian set about finding out as much as she could about this new powered flight machine and attended her first aviation meeting in Blackpool in 1909 (the same meeting that Harry Ferguson attended). She initially built a biplane as a glider and when this proved successful, she decided to build a larger version that would hold an engine and be capable of powered flight. Unlike many of her male contemporaries, Lilian Bland was completely self-taught and her skill in overcoming many of the issues that arose throughout the course of the build is a reflection of her incredible aptitude for engineering.
So impatient was she to receive her engine to start this work that she travelled over to England and brought it back herself carrying it like an extra piece of luggage much to the surprise of her fellow travellers!
Her first trial flights took place on Carnmoney Hill and her biplane, aptly named Mayfly, as in her words ‘it may fly or it may not’ achieved its first flight in late August 1910 in Randalstown. In that moment Lilian became the first woman in the world to design, build and fly her own aeroplane cementing her place in aviation history.
Watch the video below to learn more!
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