Lilian Bland definitely stood out from the crowd in the early part of the 20th Century.
She was born in Kent in 1878 but in her early twenties moved to Carnmoney, near Belfast, where her father was from.
Unlike most other girls at the time she wore trousers and spent her time pursuing adventurous activities like horse racing, hunting and shootings – far removed from pastimes like painting and needlework which were considered much more lady like!
Lilian became a successful sports journalist and photographer and at one point gained her jockey’s licence in order to take part in the Grand National. However she wasn’t allowed to race because she was a woman.
Early interest in flying
It was when her uncle sent her a postcard of Louis Blériot’s aeroplane that she first became interested in flying. True to her adventurous spirit, Lilian set her mind to building and flying her own aeroplane.
She visited aviation meetings and took notes as she looked round other people’s early plane designs.
By 1910 the first version of her plane the Mayfly was ready for its test flight. It was built mainly of wood and the steering was controlled by a set of bicycle handles. At first it was tested as a glider as it didn’t yet have an engine.
In fact to test whether it was strong enough to carry an engine, Lilian organised for four policemen to act as a load test on the glider.
When she was happy that the glider could take an engine she bought one in England which she brought back to her workshop on the train and boat herself.
Never one to be put off by not having the exact equipment to hand, she improvised a temporary fuel tank by using a whisky bottle and an ear trumpet!
In a letter to Flight magazine at the time Lilian said ‘Under the circumstances the engine behaved better than I expected’
The first flight
By August 1910 the Mayfly was ready for its first powered flight. Lilian took off from a field in Randalstown and flew at a height of 30 metres for a quarter of a mile, making her the first woman in the world to build and fly her own aeroplane!
In order to persuade her to try a slightly safer activity, Lilian’s dad bought her a car. By 1911 she was running a car dealership in Belfast!