Friday, July 19, 2013

Pioneering Irish Women Aviators - Six of the Best!

LILIAN BLAND (b 28 September 1878, Kent; d Cornwall, 11 May 1971)
Lilian Bland was the first woman to design, build and fly her own aircraft, called the Mayfly,  at the deer park at Lord O’Neill’s estate in Randalstown.
The granddaughter of a Belfast curate, Bland had already made a name for herself as a journalist and photographer. She had an independent streak, smoking, drinking and riding a horse while wearing breeches. 
Inspired by Louis Blériot’s 1909 flight across the English Channel and by the birds she loved to photograph, she spent the winter of 1909-10 at her home in Tobarcoran constructing a biplane glider. In the early spring of 1910, Bland carried her glider to the top of Carnmoney Hill with the help of her assistant Joe Blain. When the wind successfully lifted the plane - with Joe as pilot - she decided she would try adding a two-stroke engine, which she ordered from the AV Roe company in Manchester. To feed the petrol to the engine, she came up with the idea of using her deaf aunt’s ear trumpet and a whiskey bottle.
With the engine on board, she needed to test her new creation at a more spacious location and Lord O’Neill offered a stretch of parkland at Randalstown 12 miles from Lilian's home. The aptly-named "Mayfly" was towed to its new location and the first tentative “hops” were made in August 1910. Soon she was flying nearly quarter of a mile and about 30 feet off the ground, powered not by the wind but by the small engine. A scale drawing of the Mayfly appeared in a December issue of “Flight”: she had plans to go into business selling her “Irish bi-plane” for prices from £250 without engine.
Alarmed by his daughter’s aerial antics, Bland’s elderly father promised to buy her a Model T Ford if she would stop. She collected the car in Dublin, driving it back to Belfast and setting up a Ford sub-agency in Belfast.In October 1911, at the age of 33, she married her cousin Lieut Charles Loftus Bland, who had become a lumberjack in Canada. She joined him on Vancouver Island in April 1912, where they established a farm at Quatsino Sound. A daughter Pat was born in 1913; she was to die tragically of tetanus aged 16. In 1935, Bland returned to England alone to live with her brother Robert in Penshurst, Kent. She became a gardener and invested well, making enough to buy a house in Sennen, Cornwall. There she remained for the rest of her long life, painting and gardening and gambling “a little”..
*One of  Bland's great-great-nieces is a light aircraft pilot, married to a Boeing 747 pilot, reports her great-nephew Edward Pratt.
Further reading: “Lilian Bland” by Guy Warner (Ulster Aviation Society)

MARY LADY HEATH (b Sophie Mary Peirce Evans, Knockaderry, Co Limerick 10 Nov 1896 – d London 9 May 1939)
For a brief period from 1925 to 1929, Lady Mary was probably the best-known Irish woman on the planet. Her every move was chronicled by the press in Ireland, Britain, the USA, South Africa, France and the Netherlands, to name but a few of the countries where she made her mark. She flickers to life for us on innumerable black and white newsreels and on a training film she made for prospective pilots in the USA.
  • In an era when few women played any sport that involved sweating, she was one of the founders of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association in the UK and set world, UK and Irish records for the high jump and javelin, plus Irish records for the shot and discus that endured until the 1960s.
  • She was a rare female graduate of the Royal College of Science (since absorbed into UCD), where she studied agriculture.
  • As a representative to the International Olympic Council, she spoke frequently on women’s issues and paved the way for the integration of women’s athletics into the Olympic movement. Her book Athletics for Women and Girls, published in 1925, was the first of its kind.
  • After learning to fly, she fought prejudice, ignorance and male bloody mindededness to become the first woman in Britain or Ireland to obtain a commercial pilot’s licence, opening up the skies for thousands of other women (including Lady Bailey and another Irish pilot Sicele O’Brien)
  • In 1928, she became the first person, male or female, to fly a small plane solo from Cape Town to London.

  • She was the first British or Irish woman to parachute from a plane.
  • She set a number of altitude records for small aircraft, including a heavy seaplane and in 1927, was the first female pilot to win an open race.
  • She became the first woman to fly as second pilot on commercial flights, when she badgered KLM into letting her fly on their European routes. Unfortunately, she was way ahead of her time and was forced to drop her idea of becoming a pilot on KLM’s new route to Indonesia after vitriolic attacks by both British and Dutch media.
  • Back in Dublin in the early 1930s, she taught dozens of young pilots to fly and founded the Irish Junior Aero Club and her own flying company. St. John Gogarty (Buck Mulligan in James Joyce's "Ulysses") was a good friend and fellow aviator.

LADY BAILEY (b. Mary Westenra, daughter of Lord Rossmore of Monaghan b. 1 Dec 1890, d. 29 Jul 1960)
At the age of 20, Lady Mary Westenra married Abe Bailey, a South African tycoon more than twice her age. Cut off from her life in Co Monaghan, Lady Bailey began taking flying lessons in secret, with Mary Heath one of her instructors.  She did it, she said, to get away from prams - she had given birth to five children in five years. With astonishing rapidity, she became one of the world's most celebrated aviators, setting various records and achieving numerous "firsts", before setting out on the journey that would make her name - London to Cape Town. Flying in her de Havilland Moth, she was detained for several days in Cairo, where the authorities did not want to let her continue alone and without a man. Eventually, she prevailed, meeting Lady Heath along the way and crossing the treacherous marshes of southern Sudan (escorted like Lady Heath going in the opposite direction by her friend Dick Bentley) by  before crash-landing at Tabora, Tanganyika.
In a new plane, she made it to Cape Town, and then turned back, en route for London up the western flank of the continent. For her feat, she became Dame Bailey in 1930. In the Second World War, she served briefly as a Section Officer in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. 
* Further reading: "Throttle Full Open" the excellent biography written by  Jane Falloon.  

SICILE O'BRIEN ( b Sicele Julia Mary Annette O'Brien 1 Apr 1887; d 18 June 1931)
In 1927, Sicile O'Brien was the second women in the UK to receive a commercial licence and is the least known of the trio of Irish women pilots who raced each other, set new records and pioneered routes over Europe and Africa in the mid-1920s. 
Already a well-known huntswoman and tennis player, O'Brien won the first women's air race (“Aerial Oaks”) ever held in the UK although she had raced her fellow Irish women before this. With Lady Heath, she set a British altitude record of 13,400 ft in 1928.
Sicile was the eldest of 10 children born to the colourful Sir Timothy O'Brien, who was the first Irishman to captain the England cricket team; the family flitted between homes in Dublin, Cork (Lohort Castle; burned down by the IRA in 1921) and London. Sir Timothy also captained the Irish cricket team, still playing for them at the age of 53. His father - Sicile's grandfather - was Lord Mayor of Dublin and immortalised in James Joyce's “Ulysses” as “Sir Timothy of the Battered Naggin”.
Like Lady Heath,  O'Brien wrote a number of articles on aviation and was also involved behind the scenes, organising, for instance, an air rally in Gleneagles in May 1929.
That came after she has lost a leg in a 1928 accident near Milfield in north London. She got her A licence back and flew using an artificial leg, but was killed 18 June 1931 aged 44 when her newly acquired Blackburn Bluebird III G-AABF  crashed when taking off at Hatfield; the co-owner, Enid Gallien, also died when the wreckage caught fire.

LILY DILLON (b Elizabeth De Courcy Dillon 1879, Listowel, d Perth Australia, 5/8/1963)
In March 1937, Lily Dillon from Listowel Co Kerry was one of 47 aviators taking part in the Egyptian Rally in Cairo. By then aged 57, Dillon had become the first woman to received an  Irish Aero Club licence in 1934 after lessons at Kildonan where she met Lady Heath. In Egypt, she was flying a BA Swallow monoplane registered to her as EI-ABD on 29 January 1936.
The race from the Almaza Aerodrome consisted of two distinct races. One was a 1,300 mile circuit of the Oases; the second a speed competition over a short triangular course around Almaza. She won the Ladies' Cup and was the only woman entered from the UK or Ireland.
A few months later, Dillon was competing at the Zurich International Aviation Meeting from July 23 to August 1 (or did she?). At the Paris International Rally on August 1, she finished 30th and was part of a British team that won the International Trophy.
In September, she was entered in her first King's Cup, co-piloting a Percival Vega Gull with Capt Neville Stack, another well-known Kerry pilot of the time. The course for this long-distance race took in an overnight stop at Baldonnel; the complete route was Hatfield-Newcastle-Aberdeen-Glasgow-Newtownards-Dublin (Baldonnell) overnight- Newtownards-Blackpool -Cardiff -Hatfield. From the start on September 16, Dillon and Stack had engine trouble and they ended up being eliminated.
A year later, Dillon was flying her Swallow in Dinard France. In 1940, her Swallow was taken over by the RAF, presumably in the UK, “after warnings to its owner”. It was cancelled from the Irish register in 1950.She died in Perth Australia at the age of 84 in 1963. 
(With thanks to Antoin Daltún for his exhaustive research into Lily's life)

EILEEN LAVERY, LADY SEMPILL (b Eileen Marion 1890; d 18 Jul 1935)
Eileen Lavery, daughter of the distinguished artist Sir John Lavery, was the model for her father's “An Irish Pilot” portrait which hangs in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin. 
Lavery was briefly married before 1919 to James Dickinson, who died, presumably in the First World War.  
She then married the Master of Sempill, later Lord Sempill, in February 1919, who regularly piloted small aircraft in the 1920s. In1926, Eileen assisted her husband in flying a consignment of small planes from the UK to the Irish Air Force in Baldonnel. The couple had two daughters. Eileen was also closely identified with the various women's organisations that formed aviation sections, although there is no record of her ever having received a flying license of her own. She died aged 45.
* "Eileen in Green",  another Lavery portrait of Eileen, sold for £20,400 a few years ago.  

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