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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Jerrie Cobb – a spiritual adventure in the sky

Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb. Not exactly a household name, is she? But she should be. She’s one of the greatest aviators of the twentieth century, and should have been the first woman in space. And she knew what she wanted out of life when she was just six: she fell in love with the sky when camping in the open air. Her father took her on her first flight in 1936, when she was twelve, and flying became her life. Here’s my favourite quote from her:

“I have this feeling that life is a spiritual adventure, and I want to make mine in the sky.”

She certainly lived up to her promise. She was teaching men to fly when she was just nineteen, and during World War II delivered military aircraft all around the world. But, like so many women after the war, she found herself surplus to requirements and had to make a living crop dusting. To her credit, she didn’t lose sight of her dream, setting world records for speed, distance and altitude while still in her twenties. Life Magazine named her one of the nine women of the “100 most important young people in the United States.” In 1959, she was a manager for the Aero Design and Engineering Company, one of the only a handful of female executives in aviation, and was named America’s top pilot.

In 1961, Jerrie was appointed as a consultant to the NASA space program. In fact, she had twice as many flight hours as John Glenn when he was chosen to be the first person to orbit the earth. She passed the same physical and psychological evaluations as the original Mercury seven astronauts, and argued to train alongside them. But NASA changed the rules so that astronauts needed military jet test pilot experience, effectively excluding women, since they weren’t allowed to fly in the military. Cobb campaigned to Congress, but they ignored her over and over again. Finally, the 1963 Congressional hearing made it clear that Jerrie’s dream was over. A year later, a Russian factory worker, Valentina Tereshkova, became the first woman in space.

Jerrie resigned from NASA and became a private pilot. It’s easy to imagine her as unfulfilled and bitter. A three-year romance with another pilot had ended in tragedy when his plane exploded above the Pacific. But she refused to settle for an ordinary life, and that’s why she inspires me. It’s all too easy to give up after so many knockbacks, but Jerrie still pursued her spiritual adventure in the sky. She found happiness flying her own plane to transport medicine and supplies to natives of the Amazon jungle, a role she carried on for thirty-five years. She was honoured by the governments of Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and France for her services to primitive tribes. In 1981 she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work.

In 1999, a petition was raised to give Jerrie the space flight she deserved, as part of a mission to study weightlessness and aging. John Glenn was included in this program. But once more, NASA ignored her. At eighty-three, it’s unlikely that Jerrie will now realize her dream, but she hasn’t stopped hoping. She was quoted as saying, “it’s what I was born to do, my life won’t be complete until I fly in space.” I’d like to imagine that miracles still happen, but if not, I hope history remembers a truly inspirational woman.