Inspired by the work of the Wright brothers, the “unconventional” woman built her own airplane and set her gaze toward the sky. 

Would you ever fly an airplane you built yourself? That’s what Lilian Bland did—in 1910. She was the first woman to design, build, and fly and airplane and the first person to fly a powered biplane in Ireland. 

Bland was born on September 22, 1878 in Kent, England and was considered to be an “unconventional” young woman in the proper, Edwardian era. Bland wore breeches, smoked cigarettes, rode astride instead of side saddle, practiced jujitsu, and liked to mess around with car engines. At age 28, Bland and her father moved back to his ancestral home in Carnmoney, Ireland, where Bland’s interest in aviation piqued. 

Back in the United States, the Wright brothers were experimenting with their own planes in North Carolina, and embarked on the first flight in 1903. Bland was intrigued by the Wright brothers’ success and as she watched the seagulls swooping around the sky above her during a 1908 trip to Scotland, an idea started to blossom. 

Watching seagulls was just the first step in an intense period of study and focus, when Bland learned everything she could about aviation and flight.

When Bland’s uncle sent her a postcard from France of a monoplane that included its dimensions, she was hooked and became determined to see planes, and aviators, in person.

Six years after the Wright brothers achieved the first flight, Bland saw actual planes fly for the first time. Bland attended the 1909 Blackpool Aviation Meeting—which was the first aviation meeting and demonstration ever to take place in England—where she not only saw and took notes on display airplanes, but also see aviators in flight. 

Miss Lilian Bland with the Mayfly.

Six years after the Wright brothers achieved the first flight, Bland saw actual planes fly for the first time. Bland attended the 1909 Blackpool Aviation Meeting—which was the first aviation meeting and demonstration ever to take place in England—where she not only saw and took notes on display airplanes, but also saw aviators in flight. 

At the time, airplanes weren’t something you could a ticket to hop into, or even look into the sky to see flying around. A newspaper article about the event highlighted just how incredible it was for people in 1909 to see someone take flight:

“The impression which the sight of a flyer en plein vol makes on the receptive mind is indescribable; the desire to be up and forging thus grandly through space just enters into the soul, and therewith an adherent has been won to the cause. There is an exhilaration about the start, a fascination about the caressing separation of wheels and soil, as the machine almost imperceptibly takes wing, a grandeur about its stately progress through the open air which is well-nigh irresistible. Well may the public cheer as the flyer sails majestically aloft, for it is a great sight, and one moreover which is still impressive, even when it is no longer novel.”

Back home in Ireland, Bland continued her studies. She read every copy of the recently launched Flight magazine that she could get her hands on, as well as any other books or magazines about the subject. Armed with her previous observations of birds and knowledge gained at Blackpool, Bland took over her late uncle’s workshop and began building her own biplane. 

Her biplane glider was essentially a huge kite. This “plane” had no engine and two levels of wings instead of one, which had a wingspan of six feet and curved ends to emulate the seagulls. 

The Mayfly in flight.

After a few successful flights with this prototype, Bland decided to move on to a full-sized glider made of bamboo, spruce, elm, ash, and unbleached calico, then made waterproof with gelatine and formalin. It had a wingspan of just over 20 feet, weighed 200 pounds, and used a bicycle handle as the control. The plane’s seat belts consisted of just four canvas straps, which were all that separated the pilot from falling through the air. Knowing that her design was unlikely to fly, Bland christened the glider Mayfly after the delicate insects that live notably short lives.

For the test run of Mayfly, Bland recruited five Irish policemen and a gardener named Joe Blain, who hung onto the outside of the glider as it caught the wind and took off. The four policemen dropped off immediately, but Joe held on and brought the Mayfly back to the ground, Bland figured that if her glider could hold the weight of five men, it could hold the weight of an engine. It was time to get serious. 

Of course, Bland couldn’t simply a buy an airplane engine. Bland ordered a two-stroke, air-cooled engine from the A.V. Roe Aircraft Company in Manchester, England for £100 (about $2,000 in today’s money), to be delivered to her home in Ireland. When the delivery was delayed, Bland decided she couldn’t wait and hopped a ferry to England, picked up her engine and propeller, and then took a boat train back with it. 

Unfortunately, there were other delays getting into the sky. When Bland put the engine in the Mayfly, it vibrated so hard that it almost shook apart. Undeterred, she made some repairs and adjustments, and then transferred the plane to a park in nearby Randalstown.

While the park was big enough to serve as a staging ground for the flight, a bull also lived there. But Bland didn’t see the bull as too big of a hinderance, writing, “If it gets annoyed and charges I shall have every inducement to fly!”

Luckily, the bull didn’t up being a problem and the Mayfly did achieve flight multiple times, albeit only at short distances. Most of the hopping flights the Mayfly took were about 30 feet, but it did manage to stay up in the air for about a quarter mile at a time.

Bland's Mayfly, grounded.

After that initial success, Bland went into the airplane business herself. She improved on the Mayfly’s design and planned to offer a version for sale for £250, plus the cost of the engine. This new version, Bland said, would glide for 90 yards and rise as high as 30 feet.

But unlike the Mayfly, Bland’s plan to sell airplanes never got off the ground. Instead, her dad— who considered aviation to be an unsafe and “unseemly” hobby for a young woman—bought her a Ford Model T car. After teaching herself to drive, she set up Northern Ireland’s first car dealership in 1911. Bland, it seems, just couldn’t stay away from those newfangled motors. 

Although she’s less known than the Wright brothers or Amelia Earhart, Lillian Bland is a pioneer in the world of aviation. Not only was she the first woman to fly an airplane, but Bland was a dogged innovator and rebel girl who defied social expectations—on the ground and in the skies. 

Emma McGowan is a lifestyle writer whose byline has appeared in Mashable, Broadly, The Daily Dot, Mic, and The Bold Italic. She’s also the editor at the sexual health site Sexual + Being. She’s the sexual health columnist behind Sex IDK, at Bustle, where she also covers sex, sex education, reproductive rights, LGBTQIA+ issues, and gender politics. When she’s not writing about sex and feminism or having “inappropriate” conversations in public places, Emma can be found at her women and non-binary only coworking space, The Ruby. She’s also a fiber artist, with a focus on sewing and embroidery, which she teaches at the DIY school Workshop SF.