Friday, August 13, 2010

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

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

I share only half the article here. Follow the link to see the complete article, as well as a photo of Lilian Brand in her plane - sitting on the bottom plane, with a joystick type steering took guts to fly a plane back then!
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

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.

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