Air Pioneer

September 29th, 2014

The Western Morning News is a daily regional newspaper founded in 1860, and covering Devon, Cornwall and parts of Somerset and Dorset.

Western Morning News
Tuesday, February 8th ,1966

‘A Woman Air Pioneer’
by Frank Ruhrmund

High on a granite hillside in the far West of Cornwall, where purple moors sweep down by her windows to meet the sand and the sea, lives 86 year old Irish born Lilian Bland.

It is a lonely place, but Mrs Bland likes being alone. Surrounded by her plants and paintings, she rests and remembers her eventful past. A pioneer of powered flight, she spent her first few years riding, writing on sport for various newspapers, and in establishing herself as a Press photographer; she took the first colour plates of birds. It was the birds, plus a postcard of Bleriot’s monoplane, complete with dimensions, sent to her from France by her uncle Robert, that inspired her to experiment with flying.

Four Policemen:

She made a model biplane, which flew successfully as a kite, and this encouraged her to take the next step, the building of a full-sized glider. Constructed largely of spruce, bamboo, fabric and wire, the ‘Mayfly’, as she called it, was eventually completed and gliding tests began. She used Carnmoney Hill, Co. Antrim, as her launching site, and the glider flew well. Lilian Bland was pleased, but not satisfied; she still wanted to know whether or not it would fly with the added weight of an engine.

To test the Mayfly’s weight-lifting capacity, four members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were inveigled into holding its wings, together with her father’s garden boy, and still it took to the air. In this crude way, Lilian Bland calculated that if ‘Mayfly’ could lift five men it would lift an engine equally well. A 20 horsepower Avro air-cooled engine was ordered, but its delivery was delayed, and at the first trial the petrol tank was still not ready; undaunted by this, she set up a whiskey bottle as a substitute, feeding fuel to the engine with the help of a deaf aunt’s ear-trumpet.

Propeller Broke

A local landowner, Lord O’Neill, offered her his park land of over 800 acres in which to carry out her trials. “This gave me very welcome space, but the park happened to be the free range for a bull, an extra hazard that determined me to fly at all costs”

The bull was not the only hazard. Five weeks of continuous bad weather stopped everything, the first propeller she used broke into bits, but at last, in August 1910, Lilian Bland flew Ireland’s first powered aircraft.

“I could hardly believe it. After each flight I ran back to see where the wheel tracks left the grass, to convince myself that I really had been airborne.

“I was delighted, but my delight was short-lived. My father was strongly opposed to my flying antics. He regarded them as dangerous and unbecoming. After all, it was 1910 !

He offered to buy me a motor car if I would agree to stop operations. I did not need much persuasion. Although the ‘Mayfly’ had flown, I knew she was underpowered. She was more a grasshopper than an aircraft, but a more powerful engine would have wrecked the superstructure and, in view of the cost involved in remedying that, I accepted my father’s offer. In any case I had proved wrong the many people who had said that no woman could build an aeroplane, and that gave me great satisfaction”

The surprising thing is that aeroplanes played no further part in her life.

“For a while I did toy with the idea of setting up in business as an aircraft producer – a plane maker !   I even advertised for orders; I had no production facilities, no capital, and, fortunately, no orders. I must have been mad.”

Then Cars:

“A number of young officers wrote to me from Belfast asking me to teach them how to fly, as if I knew myself !  The ‘Mayfly’ eventually went to a boy’s club and its engine finished up in the Science Museum in London, where , as far as I know, it remains.” Asked for her opinion of today’s aircraft, Lilian Bland replied briefly and to the point: “Noisy things”

Always adventurous, the possession of a motor-car started her off on a new career. She taught herself to drive and then began a Ford agency in Belfast. This she managed successfully for some years until she emigrated to Canada, where she married a cousin, Charles Bland, and helped him establish a farm on virgin land near Vancouver. “We travelled everywhere by boat, so for a time I became a marine engineer”

In 1935 she returned to England and spent the next 20 years gardening in Kent until 1955 when she retired to Cornwall.

“I’d been here before on painting holidays with my father. I remembered the days when we could call at a farmhouse and get a genuine, delicious Cornish cream tea for 6d (sixpence), when we could stroll down to the harbour and for a few coppers (pennies) collect a crab fresh from the itinerant Breton fishermen, and I remembered the cliffs, moors, and the isolation, and knew it was the ideal place for me.”


With a terrible twinkle in her eye, she said: “Delving into my past like this is like being resurrected, it was so long ago.”

Looking at the slight, lively figure before me, it was difficult to accept that much of what she told me had happened more than fifty years ago.

I wondered what effect retirement, or rather self imposed exile, in such isolation might have had upon her.

“None, 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 explained her system to me and, with a promise not to divulge it, and with a hot tip for the morrow, I left Lilian Bland – positively the first Irishwoman, possibly the first woman ever to build and fly an aeroplane – alone, earthbound, and extremely happy.

©  “Western Morning News”
      reproduced with permission.


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