Richard Pearse Memorial

Pioneer New Zealand aviator, Richard Pearse (1877-1953) whose flying endeavours were concurrent with those of the Wright Brothers, is commemorated here.

A fascinating glimpse of a unique event in aviation history can be found a few kilometres from State Highway 1 at Temuka in South Canterbury. Head west along the Temuka-Waitohi road and you’ll soon find yourself at the site of one of mankind’s first powered flights. It was here in 1903, according to many aviation historians, that Richard Pearse, a farmer and inventor, took to the air in his homemade aircraft. And, what’s more, a number of Pearse’s staunch supporters reckon he made a powered flight on March 31 of that year, more than eight months earlier than the celebrated first flight by the Wright Brothers at KittyHawk, North Carolina.

A replica of Pearse’s innovative flying machine has been placed at the spot where it is believed this reclusive innovator became airborne before a number of astonished onlookers. Sadly, there were no official witnesses to the event, which has led to more than 100 years of controversy about the length of the flight, and even its actual date. However, it is generally believed that Pearse was the first person in the British Commonwealth to achieve powered flight, and a number of people are still convinced he was indeed the first man aloft in a powered aircraft, even though there is still debate about just how controlled his flight was.

He flew on other occasions too, constantly striving to achieve his goal: he once said that he dreamed of the day when he could fly into Temuka to do his shopping. No-one will probably ever solve the riddle of Richard Pearse’s flying exploits now, but visitors who stand beside the road at Waitohi and gaze up at the replica aircraft can’t help but be impressed by the ingenuity and innovative mind of this remarkable Kiwi, working in isolation and with almost no financial resources.

Pearse, who was born in 1877, had been fascinated by the thought of flying and obsessed with inventing from his schoolboy days. He was, supposedly, a farmer at Waitohi, but he spent much more time inventing (including making many of his own tools) in an old cottage on his property. The aircraft that he flew at Waitohi was made from bamboo that Pearse brought home from Temuka by bicycle, a sight that led to some locals nicknaming him Bamboo Dick.

His obsession with flying was not understood in the traditional, conservative rural community. His bamboo-frame aircraft also had a tricycle undercarriage, wing flaps for control in the air, and had other visionary features such as a frontmounted propeller and a single wing.

In the 1930s Pearse moved to Christchurch, where he built another remarkable aircraft, his Utility Plane, which was designed for vertical take-offs and landings. Tragically, Pearse suffered a breakdown in 1951 and died in a psychiatric hospital two years later. His memory lives on, nevertheless, not just at Waitohi, but also at the South Canterbury Museum in Timaru, which houses another replica of Pearse’s aircraft, along with other artifacts and information. The Pleasant Point Museum and Railway also has displays about the Kiwi who flew.

Image Credit: Glen Butler Night and Light Photography