Going up: George Bolt is believed to be the pilot of this glider taking off from the Cashmere hills.


Exactly 100 years ago, on a warm, still December morning, five young men wheeled their bicycles up onto the slopes of Worsleys Spur on the Port Hills. They eased off the pedals on this occasion because balanced on top of their two-wheeled machines was a glider with an eight-metre wingspan designed and built by 18-year-old George Bolt.

Bolt had been inspired by New Zealand's first powered, sustained and controlled aeroplane flight at the beginning of the year. It had been achieved by Vivian Walsh, of Auckland, in a Howard-Wright biplane.

Bolt's flight experiments did not yet involve engines and he had to be content with using a glider to master the challenge of the fundamental flight problems of stability and control.

For some years Bolt had been experimenting with the design and construction of balloons and model aeroplanes. Now, on December 23, 1911, he was about to become, as he himself said years later, "the first man to get off the ground in Christchurch".

The glider was modelled on the Chanute, an open-framework biplane with a fixed tailplane and vertical stabilisers at the rear, but without any movable control surfaces. (Bolt has used sketches obtained from overseas magazines). The structure was made from close- grained Oregon timber, the fittings from mild steel plate and the wings were covered with calico sewn by Bolt's mother. It was designed with hinges and in sections so that parts could be folded back for easier transportation.

looking up the cashmere hillsIn order to position the glider for a downhill launch, Bolt and his friends climbed to the top of one of the lower slopes, reassembled the craft and waited for a suitable breeze.

However, there was almost no wind at all and after a frustrating wait Bolt decided to go ahead in the slightest of breezes.

Confined between the central control bars, he began running down the slope while his four friends ran in front, pulling on lines attached to the glider's wingtips. Though the flight only lasted seconds, Bolt was airborne in an aircraft of his own making.

"I will always remember the thrill of finding myself a couple of feet off the ground and feeling the glider accelerate as it moved through the air. I flew only about (18 metres) and, while landing, ran down one of the boys . . . the glider caught up with him very quickly and he had a painful leg for some days." One can imagine that the boys wasted no time in making further attempts.

The glider had no controls but Bolt soon learnt how to shift his bodyweight to direct its flight in the fashion of modern hang gliders. "I found myself able to obtain heights of up to [30m] and distances of [180m] or more without much trouble."

Nevertheless, with his friend Bill Angus, Bolt constructed a second glider that had an open cockpit with pedal-operated rudders and two hand levers that were connected to tail flaps. This craft did not glide as well as the first and after some heavy landings that damaged the landing gear (bicycle wheels), they reverted to the hang glider design.

In his first year of gliding, Bolt made 160 flights and along the way took the first aerial photographs in New Zealand. By the end of 1912, Bolt was working on his third aircraft with a pedal-powered propeller. He planned to eventually power it with a 12-hp two-stroke engine. With the expert help of another friend, he fired up an old range and cast a crankcase in his mother's kitchen.

World War I broke out before the project could be completed, but in 1916 Bolt made his first flight in a powered aeroplane after he became an apprentice engineer at the NZ Flying School at Mission Bay, Auckland (recently formed by the pioneering Walsh brothers). He soon became a flight instructor and later the school's chief pilot.

For the following 40 years, his career continued to reflect the development of aviation in New Zealand. Just as he had been one of the earliest pioneers to wrestle with the principles of flight, he became a leading aircraft engineer as aeroplanes became more sophisticated.

1921_adIn 1919, Bolt set an altitude record for a flight at 6500 feet, and made the country's first airmail flight from Auckland to Dargaville. From 1919 to 1921 he set a number of one- day distance flying records, and in a flying boat he made the first Auckland- Wellington flight.

Lack of business support stopped his plans in 1924 to be the first to fly the Tasman (the feat that Charles Kingsford Smith was to achieve in 1928).

"We would have done it easily," he said.

"The three-seat Vickers Vulture seaplane had a range of at least 16 hours."

As chief pilot and technical advisor to Cook Strait Airways, Bolt had a major role in establishing New Zealand's airline industry in the 1930s.

During World War II he was chief engineer and director of aircraft production at RNZAF Hobsonville, responsible for assembling and servicing the large numbers of aircraft arriving from Britain and the United States.

Then, as chief engineer for TEAL (1944-60), he presided over the introduction and operation of a range of modern aircraft.

Bolt's son, Sir Richard Bolt, also featured in our aviation history, being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1945 for Pathfinder operations with RAF Bomber Command, and later becoming Air Marshal and Chief of Defence Staff in 1976.

Last month he accepted on his father's behalf a specially struck Walsh Centennial Medal for Bolt's major contribution to New Zealand aviation, since that first flight of Vivian Walsh in 1911.

The Riddle of Richard PearseOne of the most interesting of George Bolt's contributions to New Zealand aviation came when he was in his 60s. Then he rescued the story of South Canterbury's Richard Pearse from oblivion, as Gordon Ogilvie has outlined in his fascinating book, The Riddle of Richard Pearse.

A farmer at Waitohi, Pearse is now known to have achieved a powered takeoff in a heavier-than-air machine around the same time that the Wright Brothers in 1903 made the world's first controlled and sustained flight.

Pearse's flight was by no means controlled or sustained, for his craft quickly crashed into a farm hedge.

However, as he was working independently with little more equipment than that found in a farm blacksmith's shop, he deserves credit for being one of the first pioneers to achieve a powered takeoff in a flying machine. Yet, when Pearse died in Christchurch in 1953, very little was publicly known about his pioneering work of 50 years earlier.

This was partly due to his secrecy concerning his inventions and partly to the fact that his flight experiments were conducted in an isolated country area 30km from Timaru that was only accessible by fording rivers.

From Pearse's property in Woolston, aviation enthusiasts retrieved his last secret invention that he had still been working on when he died - a curious- looking convertible aeroplane-helicopter.

This was stored in a hangar at the Canterbury Aero Club for a couple of years where it attracted little interest, until in 1956 when Bolt dropped in for a visit.

He was looking for items to start up Auckland's Museum of Transport and Technology.

Who better than the country's most experienced aircraft engineer to recognise the value of this unique experiment in New Zealand's aviation history.

Bolt immediately acquired the contraption and arranged for it to be transported to Auckland. The resultant publicity put Bolt in touch with Pearse's surviving siblings, and it was revealed that Pearse had actually attempted to fly at the very beginning of the century.

Bolt began to collect information about this, describing the process in a report of his findings: "Coupled with various incoming letters from people knowing a little about these flights having taken place, it became rather amazing when investigating around [South Canterbury] to find so many people who knew of the Pearse attempts at flying, while these attempts did not seem to be known generally throughout New Zealand at all."

Bolt spearheaded an investigation that involved the interviewing of eye-witnesses of the flight attempts, as well as the location of the remnants of one of Pearse's earliest machines that had been dumped in the Opihi riverbed.

In 1961, Bolt presented his paper, which analysed the machine's engineering with the help of Pearse's patent specifications, and gave Pearse the prominence in aviation history that he deserved, and which earned for Bolt an award from the Royal Aeronautical Society.

George Bolt died in Auckland two years later.

His name is commemorated in George Bolt Memorial Drive, the main road leading to Auckland Airport, as well as in George Bolt Street, Wellington Airport; Bolt Road, Nelson Airport and Bolt Place at Christchurch Airport.

- © Fairfax NZ News