Lilian Bland – the first woman to build and fly a plane

I’ve always had a fascination with splendid Edwardian planes and this week I’ve found a splendid Edwardian lady who built and flew one, the first woman to do so. Lilian Bland was born in Kent in 1878 to an Anglo-Irish family and around the turn of the century, after the death of her mother, moved to Northern Ireland with her father. Even before she took to the air, Lilian led an exciting life. She was a journalist and press photographer, specialising in sports events, and refused to conform to the standards of the day: she was an excellent shot, a smoker, wore trousers, rode a horse astride and practiced martial arts. She tried to ride in the Grand National but was refused because she was a woman. While in Northern Ireland, she took the first colour photos of birds and developed a fascination for bird flight.

Inspired by Bleriot, she attended the first British Aviation meeting in 1909 and decided to design a full-sized glider. This flew well, but she wanted to know whether it would fly with the added weight of an engine. She therefore talked five local men into holding the wings. When it took to the air with the weight of the men, she realised it would hold an engine, and ordered an engine, coming over to England to collect it and taking it back on the train with her. Lilian soon became not only a skilled engineer but also adept at improvisation: when her order for a petrol tank was delayed, she used her aunt’s ear trumpet and a whisky bottle. Lilian completed the plane in 1910 and named it the Mayfly: ‘may fly, may not fly’ It actually rose thirty feet into the air and flew for thirty yards, pretty good by the standards of the day.

Her father, disapproving of Lilian’s unladylike lifestyle and worried she would injure herself, offered Lilian a Model T Ford if she gave up flying. Knowing that her plane was underpowered and ‘more of a grasshopper than an aircraft,’ she accepted her father’s offer and flying played no further part in her life; she’d proved wrong the people who said that women were incapable of building an aeroplane and that was enough satisfaction for her. The car was the start of her next career as a car dealer. Eventually she married a Canadian and helped him establish a farm on virgin land near Vancouver. They travelled everywhere by boat so her engineering skills came in handy.

In 1935 she returned to England and spent the next 20 years gardening in Kent. When she retired to to Cornwall in 1955, she lived in isolation but was happy in retirement, saying, “I love it. I keep busy, I have my plants, I paint and I gamble. Very occasionally I watch television at a neighbour’s house, but only the horse racing – I back five horses a day, with success, I may add and, great fun!” She died in 1971, aged 92.

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