Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Journalist, photographer, crackshot and the first woman to fly an aeroplane ...the amazing Lilian Bland

As Northern Ireland prepares to mark the centenary of her pioneering lift-off with a series of events, Eddie McIlwaine recalls a real maverick spirit

Lift off: Lilian Bland in her plane

A representative of the Ulster Aviation Society will go on a pilgrimage to a quiet little cemetery in Sennen, Cornwall on Tuesday, August 31.

There, he will lay a wreath on the grave of Lilian Bland, a pioneering aviator who 100 years ago on that date became the first woman to get airborne in a powered aeroplane.

“We are also trying to arrange a fly past of the graveyard that day by an aircraft from a pilot training school at Land’s End,,” says Ernie Cromie of the Society. “It will be spectacular and emotional as we honour a brave and remarkable lady who did all her early flying in Co Antrim.”

At the same time Newtownabbey Council plans to re-name a park in her honour at Glengormley not far from her family home at Carnmoney. She carried out her first aviation experiment on Carnmoney Hill where I wandered as a boy (many years after Lilian’s time, I hasten to add).

There are plans too for a sculpture in the park of Miss Bland’s fragile little plane, which she called the Mayfly.

And artist Norman Whitla is to be commissioned to paint Lilian on her beloved Carnmoney Hill, which had happy memories for her — notwithstanding the day she encountered Ferdinand, the bad-tempered bull.

He gave this would-be flyer the fright of her life and she was a woman who didn’t scare easily.

She had to move quickly over a hedge to escape that bellowing hunk of meat. However, that face-to-face on the hill in the spring of 1910 definitely accelerated her plans to become the world’s first female pilot. Better getting into trouble in the air, rather than on the end of a bull’s horns is what she must have thought.

Lilian, who was born in Kent in May 1878, came to live with her widowed artist father — there is at least one of his canvases in the Ulster Museum — in his native Carnmoney in East Antrim in 1900 when her mother died. There is a plaque in her memory at Tobercorran House on Glebe Road West between Carnmoney and Glengormley where she grew up.

And Carnmoney Hill became her favourite place to wander and dream about taking off into the clouds.

She built her first glider in a workshop which is still there at Tobercorran House and tested it out on the hillside in all kinds of weather.

Mayfly, a biplane, got into the air alright — with a little bit of help from the local constabulary and some youngsters.

But by the time she acquired an engine to power the machine Lilian was aware that the natural slopes of the hill were no longer suitable for take-off purposes, and that meeting with the bull finally made up her mind to look elsewhere.

And it was while Lilian was indulging her other talent as a skilled photographer on the Lough Neagh shore near Crumlin, shooting wildlife, that she was informed that the current Lord O'Neill had the perfect level acreage at his Deerpark residence near Randalstown, which could be turned into an ideal landing strip.

It was friendly eel fishermen with whom she went out on expeditions on the water who informed the young fly girl of His Lordship's fascination with her pioneering work, and eventually a historic meeting between aristocrat and this extraordinary young woman with ideas ahead of her time, took place.

Lord O'Neill was delighted to give Lilian permission to use his land at the Deerpark for her flying attempts.

And it was the experiments with Mayfly on the grassy Deerpark that eventually saw the plane take off into the air and reach the dizzy height of upwards of 30 feet.

Randalstown Historical Society is right now designing a plaque which will be erected at the Deerpark to remind passers-by that the lady whose grandfather was the Rev Robert Winstringham Bland, perpetual curate at St George’s Parish Church in Belfast, was the first lady flyer ever.

However, the Mayfly wasn't destined to be a commercial success and eventually Lilian gave up her aviation work and became the first female Ford motor car agent in Ireland instead.

Lilian was far from conventional despite her genteel background. She smoked, wore trousers, was a ju-jitsu expert and a good shot with a rifle and was even known to cuss a little.

In 1911 she married her cousin Charles Loftus Bland and lived for years in Vancouver Island, Canada. They had a teenage daughter who died in an accident, She came back to England and settled in the village of Sennen near Land’s End.

When she died in 1971 at age 92, Lilian was buried in the cemetery at the parish church there.

Aviation historian and writer of bestsellers on all kinds of aircraft, Guy Warner, has the full story of Lilian Bland in a booklet he spent a year researching.

Madcap Lilian with a thirst for speed and adventure first experienced a flight in a glider with the help of a boyfriend in Co Down who took her up in his machine a few times as a passenger, but refused to let her handle the controls.

She was inspired too by the powered flight of renowned pioneer pilot Louis Bleriot across the Channel from France early in 1909 and wrote to him pleading to be allowed to ride as his passenger on his next trip.

It was when Bleriot turned her down flat that she decided to go it alone and build her own glider, with an idea to install an engine later.

She called it Mayfly after an irritating fly that buzzed her head as she laboured that spring of 1909 working on her machine.

After her gliding adventures on Carnmoney Hill, with my dad, John, as a young witness, Lilian installed a 20 horse power engine in Mayfly and made her first attempts at getting into the air on those same slopes.

So eager was she to get airborne that when the petrol tank ordered from a firm called A.V. Roe in Manchester didn’t arrive on time she used a glass water bottle to hold the fuel and poured it in with the help of an old ear trumpet.

Four burly Royal Irish Constabulary policemen from Glengormley Barracks, who adored Lilian in spite of her madcap driving habits in her car, were persuaded to climb up the hill to hang on to Mayfly’s wings to help her get the balance right as she tried in vain to get off the ground.

The runway was too short down a grassy bank and Lilian was running out of meadow.

That is when she made the decision to switch to the Deerpark at Antrim where she and Mayfly did make that important contribution to aeronautical history.

Mind you, not everybody in Carnmoney and east Antrim fell over themselves to praise this young lady.

The Presbyterians in the village frowned on her unladylike behaviour and the genteel country folk around the district were not pleased with her devil-may-care approach to life, especially as she was the daughter of an artist who was looked on as the real Bland personality.

So it’s no wonder that eventually when she ran out of money to turn her love of aircraft into a commercial success Lilian decided to concentrate on her photography and journalism and give up her dream.

But for the rest of her life, especially after she returned from Canada alone when her marriage got into difficulties, she was always willing to take centre stage and talk about herself as possibly the first woman pilot in the world to fly.

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