NZ aviation pioneer was the real deal

Last updated 11:08 11/05/2012

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EVAN GARDINER presents a family perspective on the controversy over Richard Pearse's pioneering efforts to fly.

I am standing up for Richard Pearse's family. I am standing up for my great uncle Richard Pearse, my grandfather Warne Pearse and my great aunts Florrie and Ruth.

Apart from Richard, who died at an earlier age, my great aunts and grandfather were a valued part of my extended family when I was growing up and I was always aware of their sense of fair play and absolute integrity.

I've also been closely involved in the whole Richard Pearse saga since the early 1960s.

Over the years there have been many contenders come and go, to try to dis-establish Pearse's position in New Zealand history. Errol Martyn is the latest contender.

Richard Pearse's achievements in the early 1900s were principally established through the efforts of a number of researchers tracking down and independently interviewing the many people who witnessed some aspects of those achievements.

Now Martyn is attempting to construct an argument, with the backing of an overseas "expert", that my relatives and all those other witnesses did not accurately remember what happened in their lives at that time.

Therefore, according to Martyn, all this witness evidence needs to be discarded as irrelevant when recording Pearse's place in aviation history.

There is nothing new about Martyn's argument. Or the fact common sense will continue to show we can all recall a number of special events and people we have known and to hold those memories forever.

What is new though, is a recently discovered article from the Timaru Post of November 17, 1909.

It provides an interesting and intimate insight into Richard Pearse. Even more importantly, it also clearly establishes the advanced stage of development of Pearse's aircraft at the time of the interview. When Pearse started up his aircraft engine to demonstrate its performance, to use the reporter's wonderfully descriptive prose: "The engine was set going, the propeller was given a twist or two, and with a suddenness wholly unprovided for, I was almost blown off my feet by a veritable hurricane of wind.

"The propeller blades spun round until they appeared as mere shadows in the daylight; the machine heaved and rattled like a living thing, seeming every moment as if it would spring from the earth and disappear."

Further in the interview, Pearse describes his recent attempt at controlled flight: "I have had several tests. Last week's was my most successful one, the machine rising readily."

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It should be obvious to the reader that the engine demonstration and the recent "flight" described by Pearse could only have been possible after many years of prior development of his engine and aircraft.

In The Press (April 28), in an article headed "Pearse's first attempt to fly 'was in 1909' " Errol Martyn sought to persuade us that Pearse did nothing of interest to aviation historians before 1904 and that "Pearse didn't even attempt flight until six years after the Wrights". Martyn's premise is based on his interpretation of that part of a letter Richard Pearse wrote to Dunedin's Evening Star on May 10, 1915. The selected quote that Martyn chose for the Press article was: (Pearse) "started to solve the problem of flight about March 1904" and added, he had "worked at the problem for about 5 1/2 years'."

The problem with this quote is it has been taken out of context with the rest of Pearse's letter and has enabled Martyn to present his case and subsequent article on a false premise.

Reproduced here is the actual part of Pearse's letter that retained the context that Pearse intended:

"After Langley's failure in 1903 I was still of the opinion that aerial navigation was possible, and I started out to solve the problem about March, 1904. The Wrights started at about the same time. Langley was subsidised to the extent of ten thousand Pounds by the American Government, and after his failure aerial navigation was thought to be an impossibility; in fact 'flying machines that wouldn't fly,' was a standing joke with the Newspapers."

This quote from Pearse: "I started out to solve the problem about March 1904", followed by this important next line that Martyn chose not to include, "The Wrights started at about the same time", should have challenged Martyn to at least research what was "the problem" that both these "aviators" were still experiencing in early 1904.

The "problem" of course was, lack of control.

Unlike Pearse, the Wrights made it very easy for future aviation historians when their book was published by Dover Publications, New York. How We Invented The Aeroplane. An Illustrated History by Orville Wright. In the appendix "The Wright Brothers' Aeroplane" by Orville and Wilbur Wright, they say: "We had not been flying long in 1904 before we found that the problem of equilibrium had not yet been entirely solved. Sometimes, in making a circle, the machine would turn over sideways despite anything the operator could do, although, under the same conditions in ordinary straight flight, it could be righted in an instant. The causes of these troubles - too technical for explanation here - were not entirely overcome until the end of September, 1905.

"The flights then rapidly increased in length, till experiments were discontinued after the 5th October, on account of the number of people attracted to the field."

This shows that the Wrights were still having issues with lack of control until late in 1905, several years after the Wrights' first recorded flight in 1903.

Important to note also, that not only did these pioneer aviators need to construct an aircraft that could be controlled, they also had to learn the skills, without any prior training or practice, to fly that aircraft in a controlled way.

In taking Pearse's quote out of context, Martyn thinks he can persuade us to rewrite New Zealand's early aviation history.

Not so.

As previously mentioned in my opening lines, he is even less successful in his assertion that all eyewitnesses' testimony is irrelevant.

Gordon Ogilvie's book The Riddle Of Richard Pearse records no less than 48 eyewitness accounts that were able to personally testify to witnessing Pearse's aircraft development and subsequent attempts at powered flight over the period 1902 to 1904.

A number of these witnesses have sworn an affidavit to their testimony. A few were able to date their testimony very accurately because they had left the area after 1904.

You can say what you like about the "sins of memory" - misattribution, suggestibility, bias, etc - but 48 is too high a number for all to be misled, misinformed, over- imaginative, senile, lying or stupid.

Of particular relevance is that Martyn has chosen to devalue this witness testimony even further by claiming that all these witnesses are "unnamed". This is completely untrue and all these witnesses are named and recorded in this book.

To be clear about my own position, it has never mattered too much to me if Pearse's first "flight" was celebrated sometime in 1902, 1903 or 1904.

To my mind, as a pilot and builder of several aircraft, the achievement of the first controlled flight rightly belongs to the Wrights.

And despite Martyn's often repeated statement to the contrary, this is the view consistently held by all the Richard Pearse supporters that I know, and has been for many years.

However, we staunchly believe Richard Pearse's experiments into trying to achieve controlled flight should retain its pre-eminent position in any record of New Zealand's aviation history.

And finally, a question to Errol Martyn. If Richard Pearse's contribution to New Zealand aviation history over the period 1900 to 1910 is now not worthy of recognition - who is going to replace him?

Evan Gardiner is the chief executive of the Recreational Aircraft Association of New Zealand. He has has been a flight instructor for 25 years and has built five aircraft. He has no publication interests and holds no intellectual property relating to Richard Pearse.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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