This area of South Canterbury does, however, have an amazing claim to fame. More than a century ago at Waitohi Flat near Temuka, not far from Timaru, there lived a farmer called Richard Pearse. He was far from being the world’s greatest farmer; he was a very shy, reclusive kind of person and enjoyed messing around with machinery and solving the engineering problems that he was presented with from time to time on his farm. Locals viewed him as being a bit of an eccentric and they probably became very used to seeing and hearing strange things going on on Pearse’s farm.
Imagine what some of those local kids and farm workers must have thought on the thirty-first of March 1903 when Richard Pearse wheeled an aeroplane out of his shed. It was a single-winged, front-engined machine with a tricycle undercarriage and a wingspan of about eight metres; in some respects resembling the sort of microlight that is commonly seen today. Pearse had designed and built the petrol engine himself. Having done lots of taxiing around in the paddocks on his farm Pearse made his first attempt at a public flight down the main Waitohi Road that ran near to his farm. After a short distance in the air, and eyewitness estimates vary between fifty metres and four hundred metres, he crashed into the top of his own high gorse hedge.
Probably the most remarkable aspect of Pearse’s flight was that he had no engineering training or backing. Everything was done in the grand Kiwi tradition of ‘Number eight fencing wire’ ingenuity and inventiveness, where problems seem to be solved and difficulties overcome by using what is to hand at the time. Of course, the other thing to be borne in mind about the achievement of Richard Pearse is that it happened a full eight and a half months before the Wright brothers flew their aircraft for the first time at Kitty Hawk. Pearse never crowed about his activities and actually played them down, and they were not reported at the time, yet his aircraft bore many more similarities to those used today than the machine flown by Wilbur and Orville Wright.
I can’t help thinking that, if Richard Pearse had been almost anywhere else in the world but backwoods New Zealand, his place in aviation history would have been very different to the debatable footnote it now occupies. He was visionary and incredibly resourceful and he did it all on his own, though he received no recognition at all in his lifetime. That a man like Richard Pearse could build an aeroplane in a shed and fly it to his satisfaction before anyone else, without the world knowing about it does not come as a surprise once you know New Zealand and New Zealanders a little. It’s the sort of people they are. If anyone can do it, a Kiwi can. The recent film, ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ portrays that philosophy perfectly. Perhaps all those ‘Kiwi blokes in sheds’ should see Pearse as a kind of patron saint. New Zealanders call themselves Kiwis, after the flightless bird that has become the symbol of their country: Richard Pearse was different, he was the first Kiwi to fly.