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Models of Success

Lilian Bland: Northern Ireland’s Remarkable Pioneer Aviator

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Lilian Emily Bland was one of the first women in the world to design, build, and fly an airplane. She was born at Willington House near Maidstone, Kent, in England, on September 28, 1878, to an affluent family. By the age of 20, she had studied art in Paris and music in Rome.

Lilian’s first model plane was a six-foot-wingspan (1.8 meters) biplane glider, which she flew as a kite. Encouraged by her success, Lilian set to work on a full-sized glider. She used steamed ash to bend the glider into shape, emulating the wings of the seagull-people she had studied in Scotland. For the ribs and stanchions, Lilian used spruce. The outriggers were made of bamboo. The glider weighed 200 pounds (91 kilograms) and had a wingspan of 20 feet and 7 inches (6.3 meters). Lilian named her first glider “Mayfly.”

Following the success of the first flight, Lilian continued to experiment with more flights and to improve the design of the Mayfly. She intended to start a business selling biplanes and gliders, but her father persuaded her not to and gifted her a Ford Model T car to encourage her to follow other pursuits. The Mayfly eventually ended up in a boy’s club, and its engine is in the Science Museum in London.

To celebrate the centenary of Lilian Bland’s maiden flight from Shane’s Castle estate, the Randalstown Historical Society hosted an illustrated lecture on August 31, 2010. A memorial plaque was unveiled in the railway station building of Deer Park. As a lasting legacy to this celebrated aviator, on August 24, 2011, Glengormley Park was renamed Lilian Bland Community Park, and a sculpture of her biplane, Mayfly, was officially unveiled. In 2021, an exhibition at the Ulster Transport Museum in Cultra, Belfast, Northern Ireland, featured Lilian Bland as an innovator with global influence.
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