Lilian Bland is taking her rightful place among Irish innovators who had a global impact in a new National Museums NI exhibition at the Ulster Transport Museum in Cultra, Belfast.
At 4:41 AM on July 25, 1909, Louis Blériot took off from a farm between Calais and Sangatte, France, and soared northbound above the English Channel. 36 minutes and 30 seconds later, Blériot landed in England and became the first pilot to fly an airplane across the Channel. Days later, Bland received a postcard featuring the flight from her Uncle Robert, who was then in Paris.
Bland was then in Scotland taking a break from the demands of her career as an established photojournalist for a number of London newspapers to study birds. She would boat to a secret island off the west coast daily and spend her days lying on her back, observing and taking photos of seabirds and dreaming of flight. The postcard sparked her next project – building and piloting an airplane.
Born 30 years earlier in a wealthy family, Bland had little interest in becoming a society lady. By the time she was 20, she had visited most of Europe, studied art in Paris and music in Rome, read ancient and modern religious texts, and explored the works of German, French, and Italian philosophers. She smoked cigarettes, hunted hare and fox, fished, practised jujitsu, shot, and watched car races. She preferred pants over skirts and was spurred on by criticism.
Sharing her plans to design and build an airplane did draw plenty of criticism. That did not shake her resolve. She travelled to England’s first official aviation meeting at Blackpool in October 1909 and recorded the dimensions and design details of the airplanes on display. Next, she began to draft the design and building plans.
Bland then built a scalable model of her biplane to conduct flight tests. Positive results led her to initiate the next phase – a full scale glider. She completed the plane in 1910, and christened it Mayfly as in “it may fly, it may not”. To test the weight-lifting capability, she enlisted five grown men to hold on to glider as it accelerated into the wind. Even with the weight, the Mayfly rose steadily proving that the design could handle a pilot and an engine. She ordered a 20-horsepower engine from British aircraft manufacturer A.V. Roe and company (later AVRO) .
Bland received and installed the engine in the summer but inclement weather delayed flight testing. Finally, in September 1910, Bland climbed into the cockpit and Joe Blain, her aunt’s garden assistant, began swinging the propeller. The Mayfly took off and rose to 30 feet for a quarter of a mile scattering bystanders below.
“I had proved wrong the many people who had said that no woman could build an aeroplane, and that gave me great satisfaction.”Lilian Bland