Well, did he or didn’t he?
The ‘‘ was Richard Pearse the first man to fly?’’ debate goes on.
The latest off-beat facts – how typists worked on the rebirth of one of his projects!
Teagle Smith remembers:
‘‘I was a first year engineering apprentice with Air NZ in 1973 when the chairman of Air NZ, Sir Geoffrey Roberts, was made president of IATA (the International Air Transport Association) and they arranged the 20th AGM in Auckland.
‘‘Air NZ wanted a centrepiece for the meeting and Pearse’s third aircraft was identified as a worthy display piece.
‘‘Fifteen of us trooped out to Motat and loaded the wreck on to a flatbed truck and moved it to the apprentice training workshop at Auckland Airport. There, with our newly taught skills and a bit of ingenuity, we spent many months putting it back together.
‘‘Girls from the head office typing pool were sent out to sew the fabric on only half the fuselage so a cut-away view showed off the construction. (I can still picture the typists. I was 18 at the time.)
‘‘After replacing cogs, sprockets and bicycle chain, we got the engine and propeller working through its range of tilt and horizontal position.
‘‘I spent many hours mapping the ignition system. From memory, it has about 26 spark plugs and it seemed to run a preheater system that vaporised the low-cut fuel (maybe kero) before inducting into the cylinders via a crude carb.
‘‘Having spent so much time restoring it, I’m not sure that it was capable of flying.
‘‘But I am still in awe of the vision that Pearse had to think up ideas and actually construct them into a concept that was not fully realised until years later with modern technology, development and construction methods. ‘‘The guy was a legend.’’ From Jon Farmer: ‘‘In your column, you list a number of short quotes – mostly taken out of context – to cast doubt on Pearse’s claim to have flown.
‘‘However, your statement that Pearse did not complete his machine until after World War I and therefore those people who saw him fly in 1902-03 must be wrong, is downright misleading.
‘‘Richard Pearse built three aircraft, the first probably didn’t fly but the second did, several times in1902-3, and this is documented in Geoff Rodliffe’s book Wings over Waitohi with statements taken from more than 35 witnesses backed up by school leaving certificates, meteorological data, etc.
‘‘Those flights were only measured in hundreds of yards and the altitude seems to have been defined by the 12 foot height of Richard’s untrimmed gorse hedges, where at least two of his flights seem to have ended. Not much by today’s standards but remember noone had ever been lifted off flat ground by an enginepowered machine before.
‘‘Richard Pearse’s third machine incorporated many advanced features, some of which are in use today, like the ‘short take off system’ whereby the whole engine and propeller can be tilted up at an angle to provide both forward and vertical thrust.
‘‘It took Richard 16 years to build during which time he also built three houses. This is the machine in Motat. It is unlikely that it ever flew.
‘‘At least three replicas of Pearse’s second aircraft have been built, Ivan Mudrovcich’s being the latest, and although none have flown as yet, they are all intended to fly and thus add proof that Richard Pearse did fly before the Wright brothers.’’
Sadly Pearse never was the first to fly. More than that he actually told us he never flew. Quoted in context from the copies of the Pearse documents I now have and in last week’s column: ‘‘I only built one aeroplane designed before anyone had made a flight … to do the thing properly I would have to make such extensive alterations it practically amounted to building a new machine.
‘‘It is a case of two persons living on opposite sides of the world arriving at the same conclusions . . .’’
He went on: ‘‘I never flew with my first plane. Neither the Wrights nor anyone else was successful with their first machine.
‘‘But with my 60hp motor which proved very reliable, I had aerial navigation within my grasp, if I had had the patience to design a small plane that would be manageable.
‘‘I decided to give up the struggle as it was useless to try to compete with men who had factories at their backs.
‘‘As the Wrights were the first to make a successful flight in a motor-driven aeroplane, they will be given preeminence when the history of the aeroplane is written.’’
George Bolt found elderly Waitohi Valley people who told him in 1956 they had seen Pearse in flight in early 1903 or heard about him in the aircraft flying down a country road, once landing on top of a high hedge.
But they were wrong, he concluded. ‘‘The machine was not completed until well after World War I and was never actually flown.’’
George Bolt’s qualifications to make such a judgment: He’s a world-class aviation engineer who had worked on and piloted early aircraft for the pioneering Walsh broth- ers, and helped, for instance, in the design of the Short flying boats.
No-one would have wanted more than George Bolt to prove Richard Pearse was the first to fly.
But if Pearse did fly first, why did he then so firmly deny himself that deserved place in history? Also in the mailbag: Down to earth: ‘‘Your earlier reader was right. Trees and grassed areas are like gold and should be the prior consideration in keeping Auckland one of the most liveable places in the world.
‘‘There are many wasted areas in the CBD which could be turned into skyscrapers or as high as you like between the heritage buildings which are being put to good and attractive use in the Britomart area. Then offset by keeping our green and leafy suburbs as much intact as possible to add respite from the crush and traffic of the city.’’ – Anne Murray, St Heliers