Gavin Thomas Nicol
gtn at rbii.com
Thu Dec 18 11:26:03 PST 2003
On Thursday 18 December 2003 01:48 pm, Joseph S. Barrera III wrote:
> Gavin Thomas Nicol wrote:
> > Richard Pearse beat them to it by 8 months, with a monoplane.
> How can you fail to mention the Ezekiel Airship?
...because I'm a kiwi :-)
Supposedly, Pearse also flew in March 1902, but the evidence is a little
For the best part of a century, the activities of Richard William Pearse
(1877-1953) were largely unknown outside the small, close-knit, farming
settlement of Waitohi, in the South Island of New Zealand, where he was born
and where he flew his aircraft in the very early part of the 20'th century.
Yet this farmer's son, growing up and living far removed from the rest of the
world, dedicated his lifetime's energies to inventing things mechanical
including the designing and building of a suitable combustion engine and
three aircraft, in the first of which he would make a number of short
Yet he was compelled to work mostly in secret in order to avoid those who
opposed him on religious grounds, and others who claimed that he was a
lunatic in his attempts to build a flying machine.
His achievements were even more remarkable in that, unlike the Wright Brothers
who employed skilled engineers and who later enjoyed the luxury of American
Government sponsorship, Pearse designed, financed, and built everything
himself. And he did not even have access to a university or library, but
gained his knowledge solely through reading the magazines that he subscribed
The years 1902/1903 date his achieving the world's very first mechanically
powered flight(s). Dating suggest a first flight on 31st March, 1902 - the
day before April fools day. Corroborated eyewitness accounts from school
children at the time and in their 70/80s when interviewed, together with
other somewhat conclusive evidence from the local school records, confirm
that at least one of his powered flights took place on 31'st March 1903. And
there were numerous other trials taking place both before and after that. His
most active flying year was obviously 1903. The dates are mentioned in Geoff
Rodliffe's publications below.
Usually Pearse taxied and 'flew' his aircraft using his own or a neighbour's
paddock. However if the paddocks were wet this made such use impossible, and
Pearse would use the road running past the school and his farm.
Other evidence points to him flying in the winter of 1903 - specifically on
the 10'th of July, 1903, just a few months before the Wrights' first flight.
(Note: the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere). Apparently the
plane 'landed' on top of one of the many 12ft. high, mainly uncut, box-thorn
or gorse hedges surrounding the paddocks in the neighbourhood. He then left
it there because of a heavy fall of snow. Meteorological records for that
time show that snow fell on the 11'th of July 1903, but that there was no
snow during any of the years immediately before or after that date.
In his later trials he used a small hillock to take off from and flew over a
30ft. high river terrace to 'land' on the mostly dried up river bed below -
see photo. From eye-witness reports, the lengths of his flights have been
estimated to have varied between 50ft. and a quarter of a mile.
However it was some fifty years later that investigators were alerted to
Pearse's flying activities by the discovery of a roughly constructed
'utility' aeroplane, his third, which never flew but which contained
remarkably innovative features, which was found hidden in his work shed after
he had died.
Subsequent searches of the area then discovered some remains of his earlier
aircraft which had been thrown onto a rubbish dump in the mostly dried up
river bed where he had last landed almost fifty years before.
These included engine cylinders, a cast iron piston, and a propeller.
Here is the late George Bolt with items recovered by him.
Then in the mid-1970s, a replica of his 1902/3 aircraft with its unique engine
was constructed and exhibited at MOTAT, and then went on tour throughout New
Zealand - see photo at top of page.
It was also exhibited at the Vancouver Expo. '86 - see photo on right. To get
it to Canada, it was dismantled and carried in the cargo hold of a Boeing
In 1974 the NZBC was involved in the making of a documentary film entitled
"Richard Pearse." Whilst this turned out to be rather less than the hoped for
historic record, it did serve to bring Pearse's achievements to the attention
of the N.Z. populace at large.
For one scene a shaft-horse was supposed tow Pearse's first aircraft into a
position for a simulated take-off using the replica. Unfortunately however
the animal stamped heavily on the foot of the actor leading it and then
galloped off across the paddock, fortunately straight into a 10 mph wind.
Whilst everyone watched in horror the replica took off quite normally and
rose as far as the towrope would allow. It then stalled and nose-dived into
the ground. The stability was remarkable and it lifted off with no tendency
to roll. Luckily its bamboo frame was resilient and little actual damage was
done. During this episode, which was watched by a number of spectators
including four professional cameramen and five or six amateurs holding movie
cameras, no-one had the presence of mind to pull the trigger; thus the most
spectacular event of that day went unrecorded!!
In 1980 the replica was subjected to wind-tunnel tests at Auckland University,
which confirmed that indeed it was possible for such a machine to have been
capable of flying much like a microlight of today.
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