Did South Canterbury farmer, Richard Pearse, fly before the Wrights? There is a lot of evidence to say that he did, in March 1903, and two West Auckland men are endeavouring to recreate history by recreating and flying Pearse’s aeroplane.
Seventy five year old Ivan Mudlovcich of Kelston has spent nearly a decade building an aircraft that he believes is very close to Pearse’s design. His faithful “wingman” for the last six years has been Glendene’s Wayne Johnson, a TV documentary maker.
Ivan has built both a plane that looks very like the Pearse plane, and an exact copy of the engine that Pearse designed, built and used. The two men can’t be sure if the aircraft is exact in every detail because no exact plans have ever come to light. Instead, Ivan has used the description in Pearse’s patent application and descriptions written by Pearse in letters and other documents.
Ivan has lovingly re-created the bamboo and fabric structure given strength from its bracing wires. According to Wayne, Ivan has total attention to detail and becomes so absorbed that at times, “I see him morphing into Pearse.” The resulting machine is now at Whenuapai airbase undergoing a slow and steady series of ground tests in preparation for the final test, the one that demonstrates that the plane does actually fly.
There are many who believe that Richard Pearse, the farmer and engineer from Waitohi in South Canterbury, not only invented the aeroplane as we know it today but flew it at least nine months before the Wright’s famous flight at Kittyhawk. Certainly the late George Bolt (a pioneer New Zealand aviator) interviewed and took affidavits from a number of eyewitnesses to Pearse’s flights. All say they saw Pearse flying and some say that some flights ended on top of hedges, which would mean that Pearse had got some distance into the air.
Nothing can be proved now about when he flew, but Pearse’s ideas were more sophisticated than those of the Wrights and it is distinctly possible that in 1903/04 he achieved at least as much as they did and possibly more. His first flights were “hops” but so was the Wright’s first flight. Equally importantly, if the Pearse plane did fly, it left the ground under its own power whereas the original Wright Flyer used a catapult to get airborne.
One thing is for sure, and that is we can safely claim that Pearse’s concept was so advanced that it invented the modern aeroplane and with some exceptions, it took the mainstream of aviation design another half century to catch-up. The Pearse plane was a monoplane, with a “cockpit” for the pilot with his controls readily to hand, it had its engine at the front and a propeller that pulled the plane along (a tractor), a tricycle undercarriage (two wheels under the cockpit and a nose-wheel) and moveable surfaces known as ailerons, for control. This describes any modern aircraft from light planes to airliners.
The original Wright Flyer used the bi-plane layout of the man carrying gliders that had been already been flown in America and Europe for some years. It had a skid instead of wheels, there was no cockpit (the pilot lay on the wing), the engine was behind the pilot and “pushed” and control was through warping the ends of the wings. By the 1930’s the only “Wright feature” still in common use, was bi-plane wings and by the 1950’s virtually all aircraft were modelled exactly on the fundamentals invented half a century earlier, by Richard Pearse.
By the time this magazine comes through letterboxes, two men from West Auckland, working out at Whenuapai, will be very close (hopefully) to proving that one of the outstanding inventions in the history of manned, powered flight was an “idea that would fly”. They may even have done it.
FOOTNOTE: To be fair to the Wrights it must be said that they went on to develop their “Flyer” into an aircraft that achieved sustained, powered and controlled flights over several hours and covering many kilometres. In that sense they were world beaters. They did not, however, develop the basic design of the original Flyer to any great extent and it was soon left behind by the march of progress.