Friday, September 23, 2011
THE PIONEERING Irish aviator Lilian Bland has been all but forgotten, eclipsed by the daring exploits of later female pilots, such as Amelia Earhart. But a century ago today (Aug 31) Bland became the first woman to design, build and fly her own aircraft as she took to the skies over Co Antrim in her home-made biplane, Mayfly . To mark the centenary, a plaque will be unveiled at the deer park at Lord O’Neill’s estate in Randalstown, scene of Bland’s triumph, and a wreath will be laid at her grave at Sennan, in Cornwall, where she died in 1971, at the age of 92.
Even before she took the surprising decision to make and fly her own plane, Bland had developed quite a reputation for her devil-may-care exploits and insouciant approach to the social mores of the times. Granddaughter of a Belfast curate, she scandalised her relations by smoking, drinking and riding a horse astride. Guy Warner of Ulster Aviation Society describes how Bland would lie under hedges at Tobercorran House in Carnmoney, where she lived with her widowed father, taking potshots at poachers.
Bland’s desire to fly was sparked when she received a postcard from her uncle celebrating Louis Blériot’s 1909 flight across the English Channel. Determined to make her own aircraft, she spent the winter of 1909-10 constructing a glider. In the early spring of 1910, accompanied by four police constables she had persuaded to help her, Bland took her creation to the top of Carnmoney Hill. When the wind lifted the plane – and with it the four men, grimly hanging on – she knew she could risk adding an engine. Ever resourceful, Bland used her deaf aunt’s ear trumpet and a whiskey bottle to feed in the petrol. Now all she needed was a suitably large field for Mayfly to make its maiden flight.
Lord O’Neill offered a stretch of parkland, which came complete with a resident bull; the irrepressible Bland said its presence simply gave her an even greater inducement to take off. On a late summer’s day, and seemingly as much by Bland’s willpower as by aeronautical design, Mayfly did fly, briefly but spectacularly.
Alarmed by his daughter’s antics, Bland’s father promised to buy her a car if she would stop. The bribe worked: delighted by her new Model T, bought in Dublin, Bland set up the North’s first Ford dealership. She never returned to flying, settling in Canada and then Cornwall, where by her own account she devoted the rest of her life to gambling, painting and gardening.