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The “Flying Feminist” Who Was the First Woman to Design, Build, and Fly Her Own Plane

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Lilian Bland in the “Mayfly,” shortly before taking off

Courtesy of lilianbland.ie

Lilian Bland in the “Mayfly,” shortly before taking off

Pioneering aviator Lilian Bland had built and flown her own plane before Amelia Earhart had even become a teenager. So why don’t more people know her name?

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The sun was just beginning to show its face on July 25, 1909, when Louis Blériot stepped up into his Blériot XI, a monoplane with a wingspan of 25 feet and a maximum speed of 47 miles per hour. Its service ceiling—the maximum density height of a plane—was 3,300 feet. But neither height nor altitude was the point: Blériot was attempting to be the first person to fly across the English Channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft. At 4:41 a.m., he took off from a farm near the sandy beach at Les Baraques, between Calais and Sangatte, France. The crowd below him cheered, shriveling from sight. He flew without a compass.

Blériot swooped along the French coastline and turned north, flying 30 yards above water before visibility worsened. For 10 minutes, he was alone, isolated, lost in the midst of the immense sea. He later told the Daily Mail: “I did not see anything on the horizon or a single ship.” Suddenly, to his left, Blériot made out the pale scar of the English coast. He flew toward land and circled twice to descend, before cutting his engine at a height of 60 feet. The nose of the Blériot XI met ground, and the force of the collision smashed the undercarriage and shattered a propeller blade. But Blériot climbed out of the cabin unhurt, and the trip—which had taken 36 minutes and 30 seconds—made him a celebrity; his face, feat, and plane appeared in newspapers almost instantly, and postcards celebrating his achievement were quickly printed and sold.

On a summer day in Scotland, Lilian Bland received one of these postcards from her Uncle Robert, who was then in Paris. Though there is no record of what the postcard said, it’s easy to imagine Bland turning it over, and then back again, studying the plane, and thinking, Yes. Already an established sports journalist and press photographer for a number of London newspapers, Bland was in Scotland then to study birds. Daily, at dawn, her friend Miss Blackburn would deliver Bland by boat to a secret island off the west coast of the country, where she would hike up the cliffs and spend the day lying on her back, watching seagulls soar overhead and dreaming of flight.

Born on September 28, 1878, into a wealthy family at Willington House near Maidstone in Kent, England, Bland had never had any interest in the Edwardian pursuits of a society lady—they had empty lives full of empty talk, she once wrote to a friend. By the time she was 20, Bland had traveled across Europe, studying art in Paris and music in Rome. She’d read ancient and modern religious texts and lamented that even though she’d swotted the works of philosophers of Germany, France, and Italy, she’d “found no truth or satisfaction in them.” 

Bland on horseback, circa 1908

A characteristic Libra, Bland was imaginative and artistic and loved the spotlight. She sucked down cigarettes, hunted hare and fox, fished, practiced jujitsu, shot, and watched car races. She preferred pants over skirts and riding astride to sidesaddle, and was spurred on by criticism, including from a priest in Tipperary who once asked spectators to stone her for the way she rode on a horse. 

“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. And with the arrival of that postcard, she’d found her next project.

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While there is no record of what Bland responded to her uncle, her actions indicated her excitement, her nascent dream: She attended the first official British aviation meeting at Blackpool in October 1909 and circled the aircraft on display slowly, scribbling down their dimensions and measurements. To anyone who would listen, she announced plans to make a plane that would fly and was met with scorn. “Hoots and derision—which did not worry me at all,” she later wrote. It was less than a decade after the Wright brothers had made their first flight in North Carolina in 1903, and Amelia Earhart—in many ways, Bland’s closest American counterpart—was then only 12 years old.

“Hoots and derision—which did not worry me at all.”

With the practiced hand of someone who had trained with the Royal Drawing Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Bland sketched the biplane she was planning to build and returned home to Tobercooran House in Carnmoney, a town north of Belfast, where her father, John Humphrey Bland, had moved after the death of his wife, Lilian’s mother, Emily Charlotte Madden Bland. Bland subscribed to Flight magazine and began contributing letters and articles as she completed the first phase of her project, a biplane glider with a six-foot wingspan that served as a scalable model. “I wonder if your readers know a very simple way of finding out suitable gliding slopes,” she wrote in the January 1, 1910, issue, one of her earliest correspondences with the publication.

After successfully flying her biplane like a kite, 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. If the design flew, Bland reasoned, she would add an engine later. And so she got to work: molding ash for wood spars and skids, spruce for the plane’s ribs and stanchions, and bamboo for outriggers. She fashioned a steering mechanism out of 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. She added pedals to control the vertical rudder. For wing fabric, Bland bought six-foot sheets of unbleached calico muslin, which she dunked and soaked in batches of gelatin and formalin to render them waterproof. The workshop was small in size, so Bland finished the plane, section by section, carrying each piece to the coach house for assembly. The wingspan, when finished, was 27 feet, 7 inches.

Lilian Bland working in her study

Bland completed the plane in 1910, and christened it Mayfly in a deliberately ironic nod to its own flighty promise—it may fly, it may not. To test its weight-lifting capacity, she enlisted four six-foot volunteers from the Royal Irish Constabulary, along with her aunt’s garden assistant, Joe Blain, to hold on to the wings as she took off. Even with the weight, the Mayfly rose steadily in the wind that blew up Carnmoney Hill. The hangers-on, panicked by the quick loss of earth beneath their feet, let go within seconds of the Mayfly’s rise, but it was enough evidence for Bland: If the glider could lift the weight of five men, it could handle the weight of an engine.

With excitement, Bland wrote British aircraft manufacturer A.V. Roe in England to ask for a light engine. Yes, they could make one. But the unit—which was supposed to be ready in May 1910—hit a delivery snag, and Bland became impatient. She traveled to England to retrieve the engine herself, and in July 1910 she brought it to Ireland by train. “I have at last got my engine,” she wrote in a July 16 issue of Flight. “To hasten matters, I went over to England and brought it back not quite under my arm, but on two spars; it fitted very neatly into a railway carriage and also on to 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. 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.

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Even with the tank, when it arrived, the vibration produced by the engine was powerful—enough to snap most of the wires between the struts, and to dance nuts loose off of bolts. Bland reinforced the nuts by adding another set, twirling them tight with a wrench as she worked and wiped her hands on her mechanic’s overalls. (Skirts, she thought, were “out of the question” with all the wires and oil.) With time, and with tests, Bland was ready for her next attempt: to fly over Deerpark Estate at Randalstown, which had generously been provided by her neighbor, Lord O’Neill. “It is a fine place, 800 acres, but it also contains a loose bull, and if it gets annoyed and charges I shall have every inducement to fly!” she wrote.

Lilian Bland with the “Mayfly” in 1910; a headshot from 1898, signed by Bland

But five weeks of lashing rain and gusting winds prevented her trials. Finally, in September of 1910, the day was calm, and she was ready. Bland climbed into the cockpit, and Blain, standing between the tail booms, began swinging the propeller with a whip of his arms. The grass was still wet, but the Mayfly took off anyway—after a few stuttering bounces—rising to 30 feet for a quarter of a mile and scattering bystanders below. “I have flown!” Bland wrote to Flight in the days following, describing her feat. She was triumphant.

Bland was encouraged by her progress and began offering her biplanes, without an engine, for £250 and gliders for £80. Yet there was little interest, and she soon realized her own paradox: The Mayfly needed more power to fly longer distances, but a more powerful engine would threaten the integrity of the plane’s delicate materials. Amid her hesitations, Bland’s father, who considered her aviation pursuits “dangerous and unbecoming,” made her an offer: He would buy her a new Model-T Ford if she gave up flying. Bland agreed, and within weeks the engine was sold. The Mayfly was donated as a glider to a local boys’ club. “I had proved wrong the many people who had said that no woman could build an aeroplane, and that gave me great satisfaction,” said Bland.

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

Though Bland would later be referred to in the Irish press as the “flying feminist” for her groundbreaking accomplishment, for the rest of her life, her interest in planes seemingly disappeared—a reason, perhaps, there is scant mention of her in history books: 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.

After donating the Mayfly, Bland taught herself to drive and ran the first Ford dealership in Northern Ireland for a brief period; she then traveled to homestead in the Quatsino Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island with her husband, Charles Loftus Bland, a first cousin she married in 1911. (According to a December 1911 issue of Flight, Charles Bland read in the magazine of Lilian’s “perserverance and pluck and came to the conclusion that they must surely be indicative of just those qualities so essential to the pioneer settler in a place like Vancouver.”) Though Bland’s heart initially sank when she arrived, after seeing the log cabin amid a forest that had been laid low, like a battlefield of dead giants, she took to the challenge of living off the land and became inspired by the life around her. She developed more than 400 photos during this time: of tree felling, Native Americans paddling by, cucumbers from the garden, daffodils from the banks of the Johnson River.

Bland working on a boat in the Quatsino Sound

Yet the initial attractiveness of the adventure faded, and Bland tired of the monotony of the days: of hauling chicken feed early in the morning, of hunching over to pick strawberries for hours on end, of sparring with a lawnmower that refused to run, no matter how many times she kicked it or cursed or tinkered with the motor. After the death of her daughter, Patricia, who passed away in 1929 at 16 after a tetanus infection, Bland grew increasingly despondent. 

By 1935, money was thin, and Bland’s relationship with her husband was through. She could stand Quatsino Sound no longer. Bland returned to England and spent the rest of her life gardening and gambling, painting and watching horse racing in Cornwall. When asked in 1966 by a reporter for the Western Morning News what she thought of airplanes, 88-year-old Bland—the first woman in the world to design, build, and fly her own plane—didn’t miss a beat.

“Noisy things,” she said. 

This story was made possible through the Ireland-based Lilian Bland archive, which was started by Madeleine O’Rourke and has a collection of articles and letters written by Bland. 

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