Before Amelia Earhart there was Lilian Bland. Lilian, whose reputation was more spicy than bland, particularly for the granddaughter of the Episcopal Dean of Belfast, had already made a name for herself as a press photographer and sportswriter, two professions thought not suitable for women, before she became interested in flying. She was photographing birds when she noticed the soaring black seagulls, inspiring the design for the plane she built just seven years after the Wright brothers’ flights.
She named her creation the “Mayfly,” testing it in rather unorthodox ways. To determine the amount of weight it could carry, she stationed four Irish policemen and her helper holding on to the wings of the plane. The wind lifted the plane with the men in place, and Lilian knew it could carry an engine of that weight.
Returning from London with the engine late at night and in the middle of a rainstorm, she couldn’t wait to test it. The gasoline tank was not yet ready, so she rigged up a makeshift tank, using a whiskey bottle and feeding the gasoline into the engine through her deaf aunt’s ear trumpet.
Lilian’s longest flight was only about a quarter of a mile. Her father, worried about her flitting about in kite-like flying machines, offered to buy her a car if she stopped flying. She accepted and soon was running a Ford dealership, the first in the north of Ireland. Unfortunately no one would buy a car from her.
She married her cousin and moved to British Columbia, where they attempted to wrest a living from the land. She later made her home in Cornwall, where she died in 1971, age 93. In a 1965 interview, she told the reporter she was less impressed with her flight than others were. “One tries one thing then moves on to other things,” she said.