Did a Kiwi fly first?

When you mention “the first people to fly”, most people will refer to the Wright brothers and so will many history books, but could they be wrong?

First flight

The first attempts at flying should really be labeled ‘falling’ or ‘gliding causing broken legs’.  There are many stories of people gluing bird feathers to themselves, making make shift wings and jumping off towers.  This nearly always ended in serious injury or death.

Jumping ahead in time from falling to manned flight puts you in the year 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers launched a manned hot air balloon to 300m.  Before the manned flight however they launched a test balloon with a sheep, a duck and a chicken in a basket.  This was because at the time nobody knew if people could survive being up in the sky that high.  The invention of hot air balloons also brought about some new ‘fallers’ who thought the added height would give them more time to flap their makeshift wings and fly.  Sadly they were mistaken.

In 1852 Henri Giffard achieved the first powered, controlled, lighter than air flight.  He flew his airship which was filled with hydrogen and powered by a 3hp steam engine.

Richard Pearse

Richard Pearse

First heavier than air flight?

Richard Pearse was a New Zealand farmer and inventor born 3rd December 1877 who carried out pioneering experiments in aviation.  He carried out his work in a shed, in Temuka, Canterbury, New Zealand where he is said to have made the first ‘heavier than air, manned flight’.

During 1901, Pearse made several attempts to fly, but with limited engine power only brief hops were achieved.  The following year it was back to the drawing board and he redesigned his engine to incorporate double-ended cylinders with two pistons each.  Using bamboo, tubular steel, wire and canvas he constructed his plane.  It had a 25 foot wing span and a tricycle undercarriage

On 31 March 1903, nine months before the Wright brothers flew their aircraft it is claimed that Pearse made his first flight.  Pearse climbed into his self-built monoplane and made his first public flight attempt down Main Waitohi Road next to his farm.  After about 140m in the air, the aircraft and Pearse crashed into his own gorse fence.

So was this the first manned, powered, heavier than air flight?

Pearse and his plane

Pearse and his plane

The evidence

Pearse’s work was poorly documented at the time.  There are no contemporary newspaper records that exist.  The small amount of photographic records that survived were undated and hard to interpret.  Even Pearse himself who was not a publicity-seeker made contradictory statements about when and if he flew.  To his strict standards, he may not have felt what he achieved could be called flight.  This led many to believe that 1904 was the date of his first flight.

In 2003 the centenary of the achievements of the Wright Brothers was celebrated and labeled as a defining moment of the Twentieth Century.  Pearse was largely forgotten until about 50 years ago when remains of his prototype airplane models were discovered in a Christchurch garage.  Researches digging through rubbish dumps in 1963, managed to recover components of his engine (including cylinders made from cast-iron drainpipes).  Replicas of this engine showed it could produce 15hp.

There are also verifiable eyewitnesses who described Pearse crashing into a hedge on two separate occasions during 1903.  Pearse’s plane must have risen to a height of at least three meters on each of these occasions.  Records of Pearse’s visit to the hospital for a broken collar-bone after the crash were destroyed in a fire.  As well as this professional photos of the aircraft in the hedge were destroyed in flooding, so don’t add to the evidence.

Replica of Richard Pearse's plane

Replica of Richard Pearse’s plane

Pearse’s legacy

Even after the news of the Wrights flying machine, Pearse continued to work on achieving sustained flight, but with limited resources and backing he was limited to what he could achieve.  With no chance for industrial development, recognition of Pearse’s achievements didn’t happen.  With no hard evidence of his achievements they have been clouded by controversy over whether he “flew” before the fully documented Wright brothers flights.

On the other hand Pearse’s achievements are much more remarkable when compared to the Wright brothers.  The brothers employed skilled engineers and had the luxury of government sponsorship, yet Pearse managed to get airborne with no technical training and resources sourced from scrap.  On his isolated farm, way down at the bottom of the world, he relied on practical ingenuity and trial and error.  He built and financed everything himself.

The tragic paradox of Pearse is that his designs had no impact on future aviation development as it was unknown to the rest of the world.  Even though this is the case, his designs were ahead of their time and were common place in future aircraft.  The Wright brothers design very quickly became obsolete.  Pearse used single wing instead of biplane, wheels rather than skids, a propeller at the front rather than the back and movable wing panels incorporating the worlds first aileron controls instead of wing warping.  This closely resembles the method of control used in today’s high-speed aircraft.

“The Wright’s got the recognition, Pearse the legacy.”


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