NZ Firsts: First powered flight

Karora, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But wait, wasn’t that the Wright brothers (USA)? They made the first documented flight. However, 8 months earlier Richard Pearse made a flight with a homemade aircraft. But the camera-shy Pearse didn’t want to record it with officials.

Popular history has it that the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk [in the United States] were the first to fly but this is not true! The first flight was by a twenty-five year old New Zealander, Richard Pearse on March 31, 1902. Pearse, (1877 – 1953), is not generally known for this wonderful feat as there has been very little publicity about it. In fact the first formal mention of his achievement was some seven years later in the newspapers of 1909.

Pearse was an enthusiast, and perhaps a turn of the century ‘mad scientist’ inventor. Certainly his other creations – mostly farm machinery – were far from the mainstream and thus didn’t get much credit. But he did get a few things right on his flying machine that were amazingly advanced for the time.

By the end of July 1903, Pearse had achieved flights of around one kilometre in length, and perhaps even more amazingly, some of them included turns! An absolutely fantastic achievement for the time. A memorial to Pearse’s attempts at powered flight stands near Pleasant Point in South Canterbury