Lilian Bland was born in Kent in 1878, but Ireland has a good claim to her as she moved to Carnmoney near Belfast in Northern Ireland when she was 28 and in was there that she undertook her most high-flying adventure. At the time she moved to Belfast, she was already known as a sports writer and photographer. She wanted to ride in the Grand National but women were not allowed to participate at the time. When she took an interest in the brand new idea of aviation, no one could keep her down.
Bland was so determined to fly that she traveled from Belfast to England to collect an engine herself. She was also quite good at improvising and mechanics. She built her plane herself, and when she realized that the gas tank she was expecting would not arrive in time, she fashioned one herself from a whiskey bottle and her aunt’s ear trumpet. It worked. She didn’t fly far, about 30 yards at an altitude of approximately 30 feet. This was in August 1910, and that was a pretty impressive feat at the time. It was not the furthest or the highest anyone had flown, but Bland earned her place in aviation history for soaring above the stereotypes of the day to build and fly her own plane.
She showed her sense of humor and adventure in naming her plane the Mayfly, quipping that it may fly or may not fly.
The flying was apparently more than her father could take. Bland smoked, wore trousers, practiced martial arts and hunted, in addition to pursuing her career as journalist and photographer. One might surmise that her father had by this time amassed a great deal of experience in arguing with her, and well appreciated the futility of that approach. He instead offered her a car in exchange for refraining from piloting any more flying machines. She’d been there and done that, and she accepted the car and kept her part of the deal. She did, however, move to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1912, putting the Atlantic Ocean and most of North America between herself and her family’s disapproval of her unorthodox interests. She married a cousin who had land there, and together they built a farm.
Bland eventually retired to Cornwall, where she settled in and enjoyed a life of painting and gambling. But Northern Ireland has not forgotten her. A park in Newtownabbey was named in her honor in 2011, and a steel sculpture of the Mayfly is also there. Her former home in Carnmoney, Tobercoran House, is now marked with a blue Ulster History Circle plaque. Tourists arriving to Ireland today might take a moment to think about how the bravery of Bland and other early aviation innovators led to our jet set lifestyles today. We’d all be less well travelled if we had to go by boat.