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Wright Brothers, Step Aside?

(Reprint from News: January 12, 2002)

January 4, 2002


I spent a week in Christchurch, then left on a cloudy afternoon and drove south on Highway 1 across the flat Canterbury plains, bound for the coastal resort town of Timaru a few hours away.  On my way to Timaru, I pulled off the highway, followed the signs down several country roads and stopped at a memorial to Richard Pearse (1877-1953). 


Dick Pearse was a tinkerer and loner who lived in a small village north of Timaru.  He was fascinated with air flight and around the turn of the century spent many hours building a primitive plane powered by a 2-cylinder engine that he designed himself.  Known as “Mad Pearse” or “Bamboo Dick” (a reference, I think -- and hope -- to the bamboo he used to construct his plane), he flew his crude plane for about a kilometer in March 1902, according to several eyewitnesses.  Apparently, he then repeated the feat in March 1903 before he crashed. 


About nine months later, in December 1903, the Wright Brothers made their historic "first" flight at Kittyhawk, North Carolina.  The Wright Brothers, of course, were a bit smarter than Pearse because they had cameras rolling to document their flight.  Ah, the power of the media...


After his alleged flights, Dick Pearse faded into oblivion and died a recluse, spending his final years in a mental hospital in Christchurch.  If Dick Pearse was indeed the first person to fly, it’ll probably -- and unfortunately -- never be proven.


2-0718_Pearse_Monument.jpg (29243 bytes)  

Left:  The Richard Pearse memorial near Timaru.  This marks the spot where he crashed in 1903, after allegedly being the first person to fly an airplane. 



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