Richard Pearse Designed and Built Early Flying Machine

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1894
Monument to Richard Pearce, Waitohi, New Zealand just near Timaru

A New Zealander may have flown an aircraft he designed and built before the Wright Brothers.

Richard Pearse

Richard William Pearse of New Zealnd may have been the first man to fly an aircraft and not Ohio bicycle shop owners Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Pearse was 26 years old when he flew a high-wing monoplane he designed and built on or about March 31, 1903. That was less than eight months before the Wright Brothers’ Flier took off at the Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina on Dec. 17 of that same year.

The New Zealander’s flying machine had a 21-foot wing span. The controls consisted of small, movable inset wing panels; a vertical rudder mounted behind a fixed vertical panel above the flat-section wing; and a movable horizontal surface mounted centrally on the rear wing spar. The operator sat beneath the engine and wing.

In reconstructions of the flying machine, the propeller wasn’t able to move a significant volume of air to generate much thrust.

Witnesses claimed that Pearse’s flying machine made at least a few short glides under power. However, the machine could not gain altitude or maintain level flight.

Some parts and pieces of Pearse’s flying machine and engine have survived more than a century after they were built.

Ability to Build Mechanical Devices

Pearse became interested in everything mechanical while living on his family’s farm in Waitohi, South Island, New Zealand. He had an aptitude for building mechanical devices and improving devises that already existed.

The New Zealander’s first patented invention was an aircraft with a new style of bicycle in the early 20th century. The aircraft also included a bamboo-frame with a vertical-drive pedal action, a rod-and-rack gearing system, back-pedal rim-brakes and integral tyre pumps. The invention was patented in 1902.

A man more interested in flying than cycling, Pearse began working on his ideas of powered flight in 1889. Three years later, he had built his first two-cylinder petrol engine. His next project was constructing a low aspect ratio monoplane using bamboo, tubular steel, wire and canvas. It closely resembled a modern microlight aircraft.

Pearse made his first attempt to fly his invention down Main Waitohi Road, which was adjacent to his farm. He flew about 50 yards before crashing on top of his own gorse fence. Pearse or onlookers didn’t record details of this flight. Pearse said his intent was to solve problems of aerial navigation.

Pearse continued his flying experiments. He achieved several powered take-offs, known as long hops. Most of his flying experiments were witnessed. However, none of them was considered a true flight.

First Flight in Dispute

The inventor disputes claims by his supporters that he flew his first aerial machine before the Wright Brothers.

Regardless of the exact date of his first flight, Pearse’s aerial machine embodied several far-sighted concepts: a monoplane configuration, wing flaps and rear elevator, tricycle undercarriage with steerable nosewheel and a propeller with variable-pitch blades driven by a unique double-acting horizontally opposed petrol engine.

Although he later admitted that the Wright Brothers deserved the honor of being the first people to make a controlled and sustained flight, Pearse was able to fly under power before the Americans. A replica of the aircraft is featured at the Richard Pearse Memorial in Waitohi.

Pearse did not seek the title of being the “the first to fly.” He wanted to be remembered as someone who early in the 20th century designed and built a flying machine and its engine.