photo Richard PearseAs a schoolboy, Richard Pearse was obsessed with the idea of flying. He is reported to have read everything he could find about flight and related subjects, to the detriment of his school work, and to have built models of planes and a string-pull helicopter. He wished to become an engineer, but his father insisted that he should take up farming, and gave him a farm at Waitohi, near Temuka, for his 21st birthday. The farm was away from public roads, and enclosed by a gorse hedge which is said to have grown to a height of 12 feet and a width of 22 feet, providing Pearse with privacy from prying eyes.

Pearse used his farmhouse at Waitohi as a workshop, building his aircraft and their engines from parts salvaged from agricultural machinery, supplemented by bamboo and wood. He was not popular with neighbours, since the noise of his machinery disturbed them and their cattle. His attempts to fly were by many seen as sheer madness. Some people were opposed to his attempts to fly on religious grounds, deeming them to be the "work of the devil." Faced with this opposition, Pearse became even more reclusive and secretive about his experiments.

His first aircraft was built over a number of years and flight-tested from 1902. It was a two-cylinder, high wing monoplane with a 25 foot wingspan. The homebuilt engine had a 24 horsepower capacity and weighed less than 5 pounds per horsepower. The body of the craft was built from bamboo rods and was structurally strong. It was supported on a tricycle undercarriage constructed from tubular steel, with a nose wheel and two lateral wheels. Cables were stretched from posts at the front and rear to the wing tips, with wire bracing from the undercarriage outboard of the wheels to the wings. This plane was modified over three or four years as his flying experiments continued. Sections of this aircraft, including the undercarriage, can be seen today in the MOTAT Museum in Auckland. His second aircraft was started about 1907. It had a 40 foot wingspan with a wing loading of less than 1 pound per square foot, but it proved unmanageable.

Between 1909 and 1928, Pearse turned his attention to creating non-flying mechanical devices, such as a power-driven plough fitted with an engine of his own design and manufacture, and a motorcycle using a similar engine to that of his aircraft. He later worked in Christchurch as a house builder, using the proceeds from his house building to finance his inventions. His third and final aircraft was constructed between 1928 and 1947, and can be seen at MOTAT. This "Utiliplane" had an engine whose angle could be changed in pitch so it could be flown vertically upward like a helicopter. It was, however, never flown.

Pearse died in Christchurch on 29 July, 1953, at the age of 75 years. He owned three houses at the time of his death, but was a resident of Sunnyside Hospital as he was no longer able to care for himself.

Anyone seeking additional information about Pearse's aeronautical endeavours is advised to consult CG Rodliffe's "Wings over Waitohi - the story of Richard Pearse" published by Avon Books, New Zealand, 1993; to read about Richard Pearse, visit the Richard Pearse biography at http://www.nzedge.com/heroes/pearse.html.


Lonely Death and Posthumous Resurrection

In his lifetime Richard Pearse saw his efforts ridiculed and his patents ignored. Fifty years of research into the potential of flight had reaped nothing. His death had gone unnoticed and the wider world knew nothing of his work, which had no discernable influence on the development of aviation. It was only through the serendipitous discovery of the model for Pearse’s Utility plane, locked away in his Christchurch garage, that he is remembered at all. His reputation, was posthumously resurrected by the dedicated efforts of the late George Bolt (a former Chief Engineer for Tasman Empire Airways and himself a pioneer aviator). Bolt rescued the relics of Pearse’s life from almost certain oblivion, tracking down surviving witnesses and rescuing machinery from the Waitohi refuse dump. His work was later advanced by others made curious by Pearse’s quixotic story, men such as Geoff Rodliffe and Gordon Ogilvie.

Sparked by the diverting controversy over whether he flew before the Wright brothers, Pearse soon entered popular Kiwi folklore. A NZBC documentary on his life was produced, and in the mid 70s a replica of his first aircraft was constructed. The replica, complete with Pearse’s unique engine toured throughout New Zealand, and was exhibited at Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology where it remains to be seen today. In 1980 it was subjected to wind tunnel tests at Auckland University and found to be capable of flying in a manner similar to modern micro-lights. The replica was also exhibited at the Vancouver Expo ’86, and in a fitting irony was dismantled and flown to Canada in the hold of a Boeing 747. Timaru airport is named in Pearse’s honour, and numerous plays, television documentaries and poetry have been written on him. In 1999 Pearse was featured in New Zealand Post’s “Leading the Way” Millennium issue of stamps, alongside suffragette Kate Sheppard, atom splitter Ernest Rutherford, Everest conqueror Ed Hillary, and jet-boat inventor Bill Hamilton.

George Bolt with salvaged parts of Pearse’s plane from Waitohi rubbish dump.
Courtesy MOTAT / Geoff Rodliffe