Planes, balloons and pioneers - how NI women conquered the sky

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Mabel and Sheila GlassImage source, Michael Traynor
Image caption,
Mabel and Sheila Glass, born in County Antrim, were sister pilots whose flying exploits included marathon journeys, racing and World War Two

They were the pioneers of aviation in Ireland, taking to the skies in the early years of the 20th Century.

Many were household names and world-record holders, but in they have often been forgotten by history.

Now the stories of Ireland's magnificent women and their flying machines have been brought to light by a historian.

They include a number of "petticoat pilots" from Northern Ireland - the intrepid Glass sisters, Mabel and Sheila, who were born in Whitehead in County Antrim, for instance.

Inspired by their mother's friendship with the world-famous pilot Amy Johnson - the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia - they took flying lessons in the early 1930s when just out of their teens.

Spitfires and Hurricanes

They began racing together in their de Haviland Gipsy Moth plane almost as soon as they got their flying licences.

In 1937, the sisters undertook a flight of over 3,500 miles from London to Cairo via France, Italy and Libya - all in their open-cockpit small plane.

The marathon adventure took them two weeks.

After the outbreak of the World War Two, Mabel was among the first women to fly planes for the Royal Air Force (RAF), flying Spitfires and Hurricanes to bases around the UK.

After the war, the sisters settled in South Africa where Mabel continued to compete in flying races until her death in 1967, while Sheila died in 1989 aged 74.

Other Northern Irish pilots in the book include Lilian Bland, who was the first woman in the world to design, construct and fly her own plane.

There is a now a park named after her in Glengormley, where she lived during her twenties.

Image source, Gordon Thompson
Image caption,
Violet Dunville competed in long-distance balloon races before and after World War One

But planes were not the only flying machines in which the pioneering women took to the air.

Violet Dunville married into Belfast's Dunville family, famous for its whiskey business.

A keen balloonist, she was a founder member of the ladies' committee of the Aero Club of the United Kingdom.

Lucky escape

In a series of balloons - all named Banshee - she competed in long-distance races just before the outbreak of World War One.

She lost her son John in the conflict, killed in service in France in 1917.

After the war, Violet continued to compete in balloon races across Europe, but on one occasion in 1923 she and her crew had a lucky escape while racing in Belgium.

Her balloon's grappling hook got caught on a roof in a lightning storm, tearing off chimneys and causing her to be thrown under the balloon car.

Despite this she was able to return in her balloon to Brussels to finish the race.

The family lived at Redburn House in Holywood and, after her death in 1940 aged 78, Violet was buried in the family grave in the County Down town's Priory Cemetery.

A book collecting these stories, Petticoat Pilots, has been a labour of love for historian and author Michael Traynor.

World records and honours

"I thought it was time to bring their memory back to life," he told BBC News NI.

"Families of these women were contacted and they willingly assisted by locating old family photographs in some cases dating back to the 19th Century.

"Some had aristocratic upbringing and indulged in the new found activity of aeronautics.

"They established world records and were honoured in many countries."

"They competed in aviation competitions throughout Europe, America and Africa and newspapers and other publications of the day thankfully documented their involvement in such activities."

In all, the stories of 15 female aviators from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are told in Petticoat Pilots.

Irish president Michael D Higgins, in his foreword to the book, called it a "treasure trove" and said it gave all the women pilots "their rightful place in Irish history".