Since I was a little girl, I always moved around rapidly from one hobby to the next. I would be obsessed with making a script out of a book I was reading and then I suddenly had to learn everything I could ever know about dogs. Then, I was knitting scarves like crazy before I began intensely studying the solar system. Even now, I tend to go really crazy about a certain project of mine for a few weeks before it fizzles out because I’ve hopped to something else.
For instance, I never thought I’d be able to maintain this site for as long as I have and I’m really quite proud of the two months I’ve managed to keep it up. (The exception being last Friday’s post which I simply did not have the time or capacity to put together with the week’s busy schedule. So, sorry.) But the point is that while I have tried out a huge variety of projects, hobbies and subjects, the only few that I have felt I have had anything close to mastery over have been writing and history, specifically my obsession with women in early aviation.
One of these women, Lilian Bland, hopped around from thing to thing just as I had done. However, the remarkable thing is that every single occupation she put her mind to, she excelled at.
She was born on September 28, 1878 in Kent, the last of three children born to John and Emily Bland. The family was split up in 1900 when Emily became quite ill and moved near the Mediterranean with Lilian’s sister, Eva, hoping the crisp sea air would revitalize her health. Unfortunately, it did not work as well as they hoped and Emily passed away in 1906.
Lilian and her father and brother had moved as well to live with her widowed aunt, Sarah Smythe, in Carnmoney, Belfast. Lilian had taken up smoking and wore breeches both of which her aunt disapproved of. In addition, she fished and hunted, becoming quite skilled in both. Pretty soon, she took up horseback riding and excelled at that as well. She was even one of the first women in Ireland to apply for a jockey’s license and, were it not for her gender, she would have been allowed to participate in the Grand National, the horse race to end all horse races in Britain.
Both because she hit a dead end and because she felt like she had gotten all there was to be had out of horse racing, Lilian switched to another interest of hers: photography. She was immensely talented at this as well and set out for a career in photojournalism. She rapidly became a respected contributor to many London papers, mainly covering sports.
She also loved to capture nature and in 1908, she took some time on Scotland’s west coast studying and photographing the wide array of coastal birds. Several of these made it into one of the Royal London’s Photographical Society’s exhibitions and became the first color plates of live birds ever captured.
Her interest in birds went beyond simply capturing them in a photograph. She became fascinated with the way that they managed to fly and wished to be able to do the same. She wrote to a French aviator and begged to be taken as a passenger in his planes but she was declined. So she decided she would simply teach herself how to fly.
She attended one of the many community exhibitions in Britain discussing the science and mechanics of aviation in October 1909 in Blackpool. Over 200,000 people attended. Lilian carefully noted every detail and meticulously studied the many aeroplane designs that were exhibited, weighing the pros and cons to each. She was inspired but fairly unimpressed, noting, “The few English machines are, I imagine, no good. Much too small and fitted with motorbike engines.”
Lilian decided that with the information she had gained from the seminar coupled with her knowledge of the air motion and lift of several birds and her voracious appetite for any book on flight, she could easily build her own plane. She vowed that she wold build Ireland’s first powered flying machine.
She began her planning in the workshop at the back of her aunt’s house that had belonged to her uncle. She started by creating a smaller, proof of concept model that had a six foot wingspan. She flew the model like a kite to see if it could glide across the sky.
Satisfied with the smaller model, she began work on the full-sized plane, using bamboo, ash, spruce and elm as her materials. She attempted to replicate seagull wings by curving the wingtips and she coated the muslin that would be stretched across the plane in a photographic waterproofing solution, drawing on her past interests to help with her new one. She kept a thorough record of her entire process and sent in reports to “Flight” magazine.
Pretty soon, the plane’s sections outgrew the workshop and Lilian had to take the parts out to the coach house for the final assembly. The finished aeroplane weighed 200 pounds and had a wingspan of 247 inches. Lilian named it the “Mayfly,” as in “it may fly or it may not fly.”
To find out, she took it to Carnmoney Hill for a test. It didn’t have an engine yet so it functioned purely as a glider. Lilian enlisted the help of three men, two of whom held ropes attached to the plane so that when the wind came, it didn’t carry the craft away during the test. However, both men lost their grip on the ropes. Thankfully, Lilian and the other man were able to quickly grab the ropes and recover the plane.
Wind was a big issue for the plane but after Lilian maneuvered the plane and understood the main steering issues, she made some adjustments. The plane, as well as its pilot, performed beautifully.
The next step was adding an engine. Lilian’s main concern was whether or not the light glider would be able to handle the weight of a 800 pound 20-horsepower engine. She enlisted four Irish constables and her aunt’s gardener, Joe Blain, to perform a test. All five men hung on to the side of the plane while Lilian tried to take off. She was able to, although the four constables dropped quickly once she left the ground.
Lilian soon ordered an engine from England but there had been a bit of a delay in the delivery. Anxious to try out her new machine, she went to London herself to bring it back, as well as a new propeller. She drew some looks on the train back to Ireland, many people not accustomed to seeing such equipment in the possession of a woman.
A second setback befell Lilian. The fuel tank for the engine was also delayed. However, she decided to make a makeshift apparatus of her own in the meantime by feeding the fuel out of a whiskey bottle into the only tubing she could find: her aunt’s ear trumpet. Lilian claimed that it worked “better than expected. [It sounded] like a cat-fight on a very enlarged scale. The natives I hear thought one of the mills had blown up but, as the noise continued, they put it down to a thunderstorm. I think I will wait for the tank and as the engine is English, it’s sense of humor is not developed sufficiently for these proceedings.”
Isn’t she delightful?
Once she had the functioning fuel tank, the last hurdle was to find a place to fly her plane. She was chatting with some eel fisherman, like one does, and she heard about a deer park close by that was flat and large. She met with the owner, Lord O’Neill, who was more than happy to allow Lilian to use the land.
The hitch? The land came with a wild bull who was known to have a bit of a temper. However, Lilian used this as motivation to get in the air as quickly as possible.
The first official test flight of the “Mayfly” was in August 1910. Joe Blain helped to turn the propeller to get the machine going and then Lilian was off. Unfortunately, the plane only hopped along the ground. For about a month, rainy weather kept her grounded while she made some adjustments to the engine.
Finally, after a couple more adjustments, the plane had its most successful flight yet, lifting to an altitude of 30 feet and flying for a quarter mile. Lilian couldn’t believe it. Literally. The plane barely shuddered at all lifting into the air and she had to check the ground for tracks to make sure she actually took off.
Having successfully made and flown a plane, Lilian began to look into starting an aeroplane company, placing advertisements in “Flight” magazine that offered basic models and gliders. However, she knew that there would be limitations going up against well-established companies with access to far more supplies than her. So when her father, worried about the dangers associated with flying, offered to buy her a new Model T if she quit the aviation world entirely, she accepted. She knew that flying was an expensive hobby and she had already proved that she was capable of both building and flying a plane. Yet again, she moved on to the next thing.
She went to Dublin to purchase the car and, ordinarily, it would have been driven home by a delivery driver. But Lilian convinced him to let her drive, something she had never done before, and, lo and behold, she was a natural.
She was so much of a natural that she became the Belfast sales agent for Ford Motors in April 1911, one of the world’s very first female car dealers.
Selling cars not only had risks of its own but it was also deemed quite unladylike so her family made a marriage arrangement for Lilian to marry her cousin Charles (I know, it’s a little creepy but…don’t let that detract from the story). It was initially a good match so the two married on October 3, 1911 and Lilian moved to Vancouver Island to be with Charles. Yet again, Lilian put her ingenuity into setting up and managing a 160-acre farm. Two years later, they had a daughter, Patricia.
When Patrica was sixteen, she died of tetanus and the grief tore apart Lilian’s marriage, leading to a separation in 1935, after which, Lilian went to Britain to live with her brother. Twenty years later, she retired in Cornwall with the money she had amassed gambling in the stock market. She was apparently quite excellent at gambling as well. She died on May 11, 1971, leaving behind quite the trail of accomplishments.
Normally, you find people throughout history who have dedicated their lives to one advancement or cause in particular that builds up throughout their career but rarely do you find somebody as comfortable and talented as Lilian who could easily transition from one industry to another and excel so well. I wish I could have her focus and her ability to say “That’s enough. I’ve done what I can and mastered my craft all I could. I’m ready to move on to the next thing” while I jump around from project to project. Although, just completing the damn thing is good enough for me.