Saturday, March 31, 2012

First To Fly

Ask any school pupil who was first to fly, and you'll likely be told the Wright brothers (in Dec.1903).
What a shock to the US history books if a New Zealander was placed ahead of Orville and Wilbur Wright! There're growing calls for lasting tributes to be awarded the efforts of Richard Pearse.
Son of a South Canterbury farmer, Richard William Pearse (1877 - 1953) grew up on a farm about 10km inland from Temuka, just north of Timaru. His ambitions of becoming an engineer and training at Canterbury University College in Christchurch were firmly quashed by his father who said if he wanted to know anything about engineering to see the local smithy. A the college's brilliant resident professor might well have unleashed the latent genius in Pearse, as he did with another pupil of the time - Ernest (later Sir) Rutherford, world-famous NZ atom-splitter.
In 1898 at 21, Pearse was set up on a small farm by his father, hoping to kindle some agricultural interest, but Richard couldn't be drawn from his engineering dreams and constant tinkering. Locals labelled him "mad" and left him alone in his workshop, where eventually his burning desire to fly became reality.
By the end of the 19th.century, no-one had yet achieved sustained controlled powered flight though several were striving hard - notably America's military-funded Samuel Langley who dogged the other (now far more celebrated) contenders, the Wright brothers. Pearse faced a mammoth task: no technical training, only self-made equipment, no financial backing and little encouragement. Yet after much trial and error his kiwi ingenuity produced a bamboo monoplane with innovative rudders, both horizontal and vertical, for balance and steering...
His biggest obstacle was constructing an engine lightweight yet powerful enough to get airborne. Richard several times visited Timaru man, Cecil Wood (who in 1895 had constructed this country's first internal combustion engine) and with knowledge gained, eventually built a crude but effective 2-cylinder engine producing around 15hp, more than enough to lift a light construction off the ground.
Testing his flying machine, by taxiing around his property towing a heavy sack of dirt as anchor, did little for Pearse's reputation but he was a perfectionist and left nothing to it was immensely frustrating when, in June 1901, his first official attempt at flight didn't even lift the wheels off the ground! Back to the drawing-board for another twenty months of modifications and tests...
the world's first true flying machine
Time marched on: still no-one anywhere had flown...until today in history, 31 March 1903. In front of a few doubting spectators, "Mad" Pearse opened the throttle wide, made a long taxi and lifted his aeroplane sluggishly into the air.
Modern-day researchers estimate the distance at about 150m - three times that of the Wright brothers' initial effort (which was essentially a glider flight with a motor, not controlled flight) - and are sure Richard Pearse did fly nine months before the supposed "first" flight at Kittyhawk.
His achievement may never gain international recognition, but at home NZers are nonetheless very proud of our aviation pioneer - "Mad" Richard Pearse.

1 comment:

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