The First to fly
Richard Pearse of South Canterbury was the first New Zealander who tried to fly. An extraordinary inventor and home-taught engineer, he built his own petrol engines on his own farm, constructed an aircraft of his own design, and undoubtedly achieved powered takeoffs in 1903 and subsequent years. However, he was a loner who left few records and had few witnesses to his endeavours. Sadly his trial and error efforts influenced no-one, and the key issue for successful powered flight – stable control in the air – remained out of reach to Pearse. Even in the US, a government-supported project by Professor Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Institution ended in failure; controlled and sustained flight required more than just brute force for take off.

And that was the specific achievement of the Wright Brothers. From 1899 they taught themselves to fly in gliders, studied wings and propellers in a primitive wind tunnel, and kept meticulous records as they studied the problems of flight. They proved that the secret for controlled flight was an inter-linked control system so that an aircraft could both bank and turn if it was to be steered safely and remain in stable flight. They built their own light-weight but sufficiently powerful piston engines and adapted their biplane with rudders, elevators and wing warping (today aircraft use ailerons) to achieve their goal. On 17 December 1903 they successfully flew their aircraft, conducting four flights with the longest covering 260m. The following year in an improved ‘Flyer’ the brothers showed they could fly regularly, turn and fly in circles, and extend their duration in the air. The Wrights’ achievements were largely dismissed by the Press and government officials (the first account of their flights was published in a bee keepers’ magazine in 1905!). Yet by September 1907 their ‘Flyer No.3’ met or exceeded the requirements of the US Army for a military flying machine. Suddenly the world paid attention and efforts to build other and more powerful aircraft began.

Meanwhile in Europe, pioneers – largely, but not solely, in France – were also attempting to achieve powered takeoffs and, by trial and error, learn the secret of control in the air. (Which illustrates that Richard Pearse’s achievements in this country, though ultimately limited, were in fact up with the best then achieved world wide). The first powered manned flight in Europe took place in late 1906, by Alberto Santos-Dumont. After the Wrights demonstrated their Flyer No 3 at Paris in 1908, European aviation began to advance rapidly. Louis Bleriot had already achieved short hops in his monoplanes, then in the northern summer of 1909 he competed against two other pioneer pilots for the challenge of flying across the English Channel. On 25 July 1909 he made a 37 minute flight across the Channel to Dover, landing safely; the era of ‘firsts’ and record-breaking had begun.