First to Fly Mystery
America and the aviation industry have celebrated the 100th anniversary of the official “first flight” made by the Wright Brothers along the shore at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. While most of the mainstream press will devote this time to historical perspectives of that event, we at the Chief Engineer thought it might be interesting to explore a more controversial aspect of the event.
Down under in New Zealand, there has already been a celebration of man’s first flight. This past March, New Zealand’s Prime Minister and other dignitaries, as well as a number of “Kiwis” turned out to commemorate one of their own that many there believe was the real first man to fly a powered aircraft. And that man was not one of the Wright Brothers, but a New Zealander named Richard Pearse. A man who some claim, took to the skies months before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.
Having heard of this event, and the apparent controversy that resides down under, the Chief Engineer contacted David Killick, a feature writer with The Press newspaper in Christchurch and asked him to look into this story for the readers of the Chief Engineer.
A postcard depicts what Richard Pearse may have looked like in flight. According to eyewitnesses, he crashed into a gorse hedge on his remote farm in South Canterbury.
It’s a clear but cool day in late fall; the first storms and snow flurries of winter have not yet arrived. On a country road bordered by open fields, a man is going to try to fly. No, we are not in North Carolina, but Waitohi, South Canterbury, in the South Island of New Zealand. It is one of the most remote corners of the then, mighty British Empire. Queen Victoria has died, and there is a new monarch on the throne: Edward VII. In these exciting days at the dawn of the 20th century, anything seems possible.
A portrait of Richard Pearse in 1903. Richard always wanted to be an engineer. He was a prolific, though some maintained, crackpot inventor. Whether or not he flow before the Wright Brothers, there is a strong call for his place in aviation history to be acknowledged.
The young man’s eyes are bright with his vision, and they are what we notice, not his rather shabby farmer’s attire. His name: Richard Pearse. Now his machine: it is a monoplane, with an enormous wing. The frame is bamboo, covered with stretched calico. He sits in a saddle on a kind of tricycle under the wing, with one bicycle wheel fore and two aft, and uses a tiller to steer. The wing has a small steering air brake at each tip, an elevator at the rear, and a vertical keel for stability. Pearse controls his air brakes and elevator with a handle. The machine’s “oil engine” is connected directly to a propeller in front of the machine. This is made from tin cans flattened out and soldered together. The engine is either on – when it makes a furious racket – or off. There is no throttle.
Richard’s brother, Warne, is there to give him a helping hand and swing
the propeller; the only other bystanders are curious locals and schoolchildren
eager for some free entertainment, and to see the local “crackpot’s”
latest crazy invention.
The machine lurches forward, going faster and faster….10, 15, 20mph. It taxis along the road for some distance into the prevailing easterly wind, suddenly accelerates and rises up from the ground. Suddenly, the airplane starts to pitch badly, veers abruptly to the left, and crashes onto a high, and prickly, gorse hedge. Ouch!
Estimates of the distance covered vary from 45 to 400 yards. Did this really happen as described? Could it truly be called powered flight? And what was the date? Did Richard Pearse fly before the Wright Brother’s historic first powered flight on Wright Flyer 1, on December 17, 1903? Some say yes, definitely; others, including New Zealand observers, give an adamant no, and this aeronautical debate has only intensified in recent years.
Part of the problem in coming up with any kind of definitive answer is that no documented historical records remain. Unlike the Wrights, who made meticulous notes, Pearse never kept a diary. He was obsessed with secrecy. There were no newspaper reporters to record his earliest flight attempts (The first report describing a later version of this aircraft appeared in 1909).
Even his plane did not survive. All that has been found are parts of his first two engines, buried in an old farm dump. Aeronautical historians must rely on sworn eyewitness statements, Pearse’s patent drawings, and his subsequent letters to newspapers.
So who was this character who dreamt of powered flight? His story is one of brilliant inspiration, fortitude in the face of adversity or indifference, and ultimately, tragedy.
Richard William Pearse was born in 1877, one of nine children, he had four brothers and four sisters. And that was part of his problem. From an early age, Richard became fascinated with all things mechanical. He apparently subscribed to Scientific American. He wanted to be an engineer. But his father could send only one son for further education. Older brother Tom went to Edinburgh and trained as a doctor. The other sons had to be farmers. And Richard made a lousy farmer.
Richard Warne Pearse, 84, the inventor’s nephew. He maintains his uncle was “the first fellow to fly an aeroplane”.
Richard was, however, an accomplished musician, and played the cello. He was also a very good tennis player (brother Warne reached champion level), and golfer. He later gave up both games. Pearse never married.
He obtained a patent for his plane in 1906, and kept experimenting until 1911, when he moved south to another farm, at Milton, in Otago. All his inventions were made with junk or scrap metal. He made a sound-recording machine, a music box for his sisters, and, in 1902, a novel bicycle. Its pedals went up and down, rather than round and round, to achieve greater efficiency, and tires self-inflated as you rode along. He is also believed to have made a 16-cylinder engine.
He later invented a power generator, a motorized plow, mechanical potato planter,
and a power bike. According to one local, “he only had a straight pipe
and the exhaust stuck up above his head. Just bang-bang without a muffler”.
He took his Waitohi plane with him down south, but no trace of it has ever been found. His biographer, Gordon Ogilvie, believes parts of it may still be buried somewhere near Milton.
After a brief stint in the Army during World War 1, Pearse moved north to Christchurch, and during the 1920s and 30s built three houses, which he rented out. He became more and more reclusive, while he worked on a new invention, his Utility plane, or “Convertiplane” – a vertical take-off aircraft that was a kind of cross between a helicopter and an airplane.
Richard Warne Pearse, the inventor’s nephew, a World War 2 veteran now aged 84, is one of the few people still alive who remembers meeting Pearse face-to-face. “I used to see him once a month when I was a boy of 10 or 12. He used to come to his mother’s place at Temuka. He had his cello with him. He was a big man with a big voice who spoke loudly and his topic of conversation would go back to the aeroplane he was building in Christchurch”.
Pearse asked his nephew, Howard Galt, if he would fly the utility plane for him. Galt refused. Here Galt poses in front of the plane at MoTaT in 1971. Alongside are the inventor’s two youngest sisters, Ruth Gilpin and Florence Higgins, both accomplished artists.
Pearse worked in great secrecy, obsessed with the notion he was being spied on, and did not complete his utility plane until after World War 2. He finally got a patent, but technology had moved on, and aircraft companies were not interested. The patent would have been easily circumvented in any case.
Pearse biographer Gordon Ogilvie describes the plane as looking like a “collision between a windmill and a junk heap”. The engine had a controllable pitch propeller and could be tilted upwards, so the plane would go from forward to vertical flight. Pearse himself thought it might prove useful as a submarine spotter, and had high hopes for it as a commuter aircraft, a kind of aeronautical Model Ford.
In 1944, Pearse wrote: “This invention was designed in the first place to solve the problem of the private plane for the million, and in order to do this, it has been adapted to take off or land on any road or field….this new type of air-craft has been designed having all the advantages of helicopters in hovering or landing in very limited areas at very low speeds or even taking off or landing vertically, while at the same time retaining all the advantages of the aeroplane (sic) while in flight”.
Pearse’s nephew Richard, says he saw the convertiplane after the war and was most impressed. “It’s amazing what he had done. Even the radiator he had built himself. He spent many years but unfortunately he never got it going properly. It would have been a great breakthrough if he had”.
The plane was recovered from his garage workshop after Pearse’s death, and is now on display at the Museum of Technology and Transport (MoTaT), in Auckland. Although initially dismissed as a bizarre and curious contraption, it is interesting to note that once again the US Military is investigating new types of vertical take-off aircraft.
Pearse became more and more run down, reclusive, and eccentric; he neglected his health, and finally wound up in New Zealand’s Sunnyside psychiatric hospital, where he died alone and unnoticed in 1953. During his lifetime, Richard Pearse’s impact on aviation had been absolutely nil. Only after his death did people start to probe his achievements, including the vexed question of if, and when, he flew.
One of the first to start investigating was George Bolt, a former chief engineer for TEAL (Trans Empire Airways Ltd), the New Zealand national airline, himself a pioneer aviator who had done hang gliding experiments as early as 1911 and set long distance records in the 1920s. Bolt looked at the convertiplane, and spoke to Pearse’s sisters, who told him that was not the plane their brother first flew, and gave an account of his earlier aircraft.
Gordon Ogilvie’s The Riddle of Richard Pearse, first published in 1973, contains accounts from 21 eyewitnesses who say they saw Pearse airborne. Using cut-off dates, such as when witnesses had left the district, Ogilvie set March 31, 1903, as the probable date for Pearse’s first significant powered take-off. This is despite the inventor himself naming February 1904 as the date when he started his experiments on “aerial navigation”. Ogilvie says Pearse got other dates wrong, and believes he was experimenting before 1904.
A final determination would ultimately depend upon what one means by “flight”. Was Pearse’s demonstration a powered takeoff, or controlled flight? Many other aviators were working on the problem of powered flight at the turn of the 20th century, in America and elsewhere ? besides the Wrights, there was American, Samuel Pierpont Langley, at Widewater on the Potomac, and the Frenchman, Santos Dumont.
Pearse, the would-be aviator, wrote two letters to local newspapers, in 1915 and 1928. He described what happened when he attempted to fly his plane: “At the trials it would start to rise off the ground when a speed of twenty miles an hour was attained. This speed was not sufficient to work the rudders, so, on account of its huge size and low speed, it was uncontrollable, and would spin round broadside directly after it left the ground. So I never flew with my first experimental plane, but no-one else did with their first for that matter”.
In the 1915 letter, Pearse wrote: “The honor of inventing the aeroplane cannot be assigned wholly to one man; like most other inventions, it is the product of many minds. After all, there is nothing that succeeds like success, and for this reason pre-eminence will undoubtedly be given to the Wright brothers, of America, when the history of the aeroplane is written, as they were actually the first to make successful flights with a motor-driven aeroplane.”
Despite his apparent ceding of the first flight to the Wright Brothers, Pearse did seek justice for “New Zealand brains” in pioneer aviation.
Gordon Ogilvie believes Pearse’s role deserves greater recognition: “Pearse’s pioneer work in the years 1903 to 1906 particularly, not only makes him father of powered flight in New Zealand but entitles him as well to a place in the history of international aeronautics”.
He adds: “He was a secretive person. He really wanted to work on his own. He didn’t brook any sort of light-hearted repartee about the nature of the work he was doing. You can’t be dogmatic about Pearse. You can’t say he flew, you can’t say a replica, you can’t say he beat the Wright Brothers, and you can’t be dogmatic about any of the dates. It has to remain a riddle.
Geoff Rodliffe, now in his 90s, is a retired RAF engineer who has written extensively on Pearse. In Wings Over Waitohi, he is cautious about according too much acclaim: “Wild and inaccurate statements have been published from time to time concerning Richard Pearse’s achievements in the field of aviation. However, no responsible researcher has ever claimed that he achieved fully controlled flight before the Wright brothers, or indeed at any time… Obviously, Pearse’s short hops or flights, whilst they established that he could readily become airborne, did not come within this category”.
Rodliffe cites detailed evidence for several flight attempts from March 1903. In the British Aeroplane magazine (May 2003), Philip Jarrett dismisses Rodliffe’s conclusions. He writes, “Pearse …has become the posthumous victim of those who seek to elevate his accomplishments to unrealistic heights”.
Richard Pearse’s nephew says his uncle’s achievement was remarkable: “I still maintain he was the first fellow to fly an aeroplane. There’s a lot who doubt he flew, but it’s the definition of flying – he got airborne. I doubt if it was very controlled but my father was there to spin the propeller and he maintained he made one or two circuits of the paddock. He should have been a pretty good witness. Father always maintained he was the first to Fly”.
So what are we to make of Richard Pearse? Although his airplanes were never built or flown commercially, Pearse supporters point out that his inventions were remarkably ahead of their time, and contained many ingenious features. His first plane, for example, featured a cockpit seat for the pilot (the Wrights lay down on the wing), a tractor propeller that pulled the aircraft, wing flaps, a rear elevator, a centrally-mounted joystick control, and a three-wheeled undercarriage, rather than the skids that were generally being used at the time. All these features are found on modern propeller-powered monoplanes.
This year South Canterbury has posthumously celebrated the prodigal son who was disregarded in life. On March 31, an air pageant was held to celebrate a “centenary of flight”, attended by New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark. There have even been poems and plays written about Pearse. The Pearse memorial at Waitohi, though, cautiously hedges over the date of Pearse’s first powered take-off.
Local enthusiasts, led by pilot and longtime aviation enthusiast Jack Mehlhopt have spent the last two and a half years building a recreation of what they believed Pearse’s first plane might have looked like, built to a design by Geoff Rodliffe, from Pearse’s original patent drawing and eyewitness descriptions. “We took some liberties,” confesses Mehlhopt. These included manufactured screws (Pearse may have made his own), and synthetic material to cover the wings instead of calico. “What Richard had done was use two-inch bamboo for his spars and one-inch for his ribs – that was what took us the time”.
It is also unclear what size the original would have been: it is probable that Pearse experimented with various models, and estimates vary from a 20 to 40 foot wingspan. The reproduction plane has a 21-foot wingspan and 7-foot chord (from the leading to the trailing edge of the wing). One surprise: the wooden propeller they thought they would need was replaced with a “windmill style”, as per the original, with variable pitch. This was expected to perform better. There was nothing like the engine, anywhere in the world, says Mehlhopt.
Residents of his hometown helped to organize an air pageant to celebrate a “centenary of flight”. The date, March 31st, 1903, while chosen as the most likely for his earliest significant attempt at flying, cannot be definitely proven.
The modern reconstruction was made by Timaru engineers Lex and Westoby, from two drain pipes giving 4 1/2 inch stroke, 4 1/2 bore. It is “double acting”, so it fires at both ends, like a steam engine. It looks like a two-cylinder opposed engine but performs like it’s a four-cylinder. There is no crankcase, so it has only “drip-feed” lubrication. The new version has air-cooling fins, and carburetors (the original used gasoline-soaked gauze) and spark plugs. It also has a throttle.
Although light and reasonably powerful, a drawback is its direct transmission. The propeller rotates at less than 1000rpm, as opposed to 4000rpm or more for a modern “microlight” engine. “We have still got some fine tuning to do” Mehlhopt said.
Several such reproduction planes have been built, but none has flown so far. During the March air pageant, the weather was atrocious: one wheel of the reproduction lifted off the ground, but the wind was too strong, and Mehlhopt abandoned his attempt. He doubts the plane will be able to handle the forces required for flying – control of pitch, yaw, and lateral movement – to stay airborne for any length of time, and believes he may run into the same problems the early aviator did himself. But he’s determined to try again.
Whatever you make of the date of that first flight, and however critical you may be of the authenticity of this modern “Pearse” plane, he said, there’s no doubting it’s a whole heap of fun. My wife and I helped wheel it out to the airfield and had a go sitting in the cockpit.
Gazing through the struts out over the field towards the sky, you wonder at the intrepid pioneering spirit of this lone Kiwi inventor working without help, fixated by his dream.
Mehlhopt says: “There’s no doubt in my mind he got that thing off the ground. He then had something on his hands. He didn’t know what to do, whereas the Wright Brothers had spent three years trying to fly their glider. He was regarded as a stupid damn idiotic fool and used to hide himself because people tried to ridicule him. He really was way ahead of his time – an absolute genius, but unknown to the rest of the world.”
And, biographer Ogilvie leaves us with another thought: “It just makes you ponder. When you have some sort of a person in your district you regard as a “nutter”, is he? Or is he doing something clever in a shed you don’t know about”?