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The riddle of Richard Pearse may soon be solved in West Auckland


Kelston’s Ivan Mudrovcich made history at this years Wings Over Wairarapa airshow when his reproduction of “the Richard Pearse plane” made a taxi run under its own power in front of a large and appreciative crowd.

Meanwhile, the “Pearse connection” with West Auckland was discovered to be even stronger than imagined, with Pearse’s nephew Tony and his partner Phyllis Costello now living in New Lynn after Phyllis’ house was destroyed in the Christchurch earthquake of 2011.

Tony made contact with the Mudrovcichs last year when Tony and Phyllis learned how Ivan had spent the last 10 years re-constructing Richard Pearse’s first aeroplane, which some people believe was the first to fly, being airborne at least nine months before the Wright brothers.

The Richard Pearse story is well known in some ways and a mystery in others. This South Island farmer was a haphazard farmer but clearly a genius and a visionary, but also a recluse. Later, after he left farming and went to live in Christchurch, he became increasingly reclusive and apparently obsessed that others were trying to steal his patents; finally, judged unable to care for himself, he was admitted to Sunnyside Hospital where he died in 1953.

Tony Pearse, now 82, remembers biking with his father on several occasions, to see his uncle at his home in Wildberry Street in Christchurch. He was about eight or nine at the time and his memory of Richard is of a detached and abrupt man.

Over time, after Richard’s death, the story of his extraordinary life began to be pieced together by others, notable among them was pioneer aviator George Bolt for whom George Bolt Drive at Auckland Airport is named. Bolt was assisted by Pearse’s sisters, Florrie and Ruth.

Bolt almost literally stumbled over the remains of Pearse’s last plane which was an attempt to create a machine that took off like a helicopter and flew like a plane. Apparently, Richard saw this as the personal transport of the future.

From there began a long process that was part archaeology and part historical detective work, re-assembling the story of Richard’s life from the shreds and shards of life left behind. Parts of his plane were dug out of farm rubbish dumps, copies obtained of patent applications, letters and other writings were tracked down.

The story is best told in Gordon Ogilvie’s book “The Riddle of Richard Pearse”, which describes accounts by eyewitnesses who saw in March 1903, the first Pearse plane crashed three metres up on top of a gorse hedge. How did it get there if not by flying? The plane was too big and the hedge too high for Pearse to have put it there as a prank.

But for all that the final proof remains tantalisingly out of reach. Did Pearse fly? Whether he flew before the Wrights will never be settled for some people, but the chances that he did, increase massively if that original plane was actually capable of flying.

And it is to solving this riddle that retired Kelston automotive engineer Ivan Mudrovcich has devoted the last decade of his life. Poring painstakingly over patent applications, descriptions and other sources of information, and hours upon hours of deduction and analysis, he built a reproduction of plane and engine in his Kelston back yard.

The plane ran beautiful under its own power at Wings over Wairarapa and test pilot Neville Hay reported that it felt like it wanted to lift off the ground. That of itself was an historic moment. The ultimate test, take-off and flight, will follow soon and the riddle of Richard Pearse may finally be solved here in West Auckland.