By Geoffrey Rodliffe
At the turn of the century, many far sighted men in different parts of the world were trying to achieve powered flight, not the least of these efforts were being made in New Zealand. Several successful gliders had been flown in Europe and the United States, and a group of enthusiasts had built and flown gliders about 1910. One of these men, George Bolt, was to become New Zealand's best known pioneer airman. He was a member of the Christchurch Aero Club which actively encouraged gliding and carried out most of its flying from the slopes of the Cashmere hills near the city.
The gliders were hand-towed off the hill slopes and achieved flights of over 300 yards to a height of about 100 feet. Numerous breakages occurred, but this was accepted as part of the trial and error of progress. On December 17, 1903 at Kittyhawk, Ohio in the United States, the Wright brothers achieved the first powered, controlled, and sustained flight of an aeroplane. The breakthrough had been made. In New Zealand, a young Temuka farmer, Richard Pearse, working entirely alone, very nearly succeeded in beating the Wright brothers to this singular honour. His efforts were only discovered in 1950 when one of the aeroplanes he had so painstakingly designed and built was found in a back yard shed in Christchurch.
Extensive enquiries revealed Pearse as an unknown genius who, regarded as somewhat of an eccentric by his neighbours, had actually staggered into the air early in 1904, only two months after the Wright brothers. The extent of his flights has not been fully established, but from eye witness accounts it appears that he made several hops, the first of which unfortunately finished in the Temuka river from where, over 50 years later, George Bolt recovered rusting remains of his first engine and other parts. These efforts, although not as successful as the Wright brothers, detract little from Pearse's wonderful lone triumphs. From his later aircraft, which is now the property of the Auckland Transport Museum, the ingenious ideas incorporated put Pearse years ahead of his time.
Had he accepted outside aid and knowledge, it is interesting to speculate what might have been achieved. Two other notable attempts at a successful Powered flight were made during this early period. Bertram Ogilvie of Napier, with the assistance of a band of willing helpers, worked long hours experiment-ing with all sorts of ideas and constructing three machines. Most of the experiments were made in secrecy, but one of the novel schemes incorporated was the aileron-the moving wing section-to bank an aeroplane into a turn-later to become standard on all aeroplanes. At that time banking was achieved by wing warping or actually bending the wing tips. Ogilvie's machines were launched from a high wooden ramp, but due to insufficient power, sustained flight was not possible.
Lord Kitchener, who was visiting New Zealand at the time, showed considerable interest in these experiments and offered assistance on behalf of the British War Office. Ogilvie and one of his assistants, Mr. Hawkins, a Hastings engineer, were sent to England to join the famous Handley Page Aircraft Co., to carry on with their experiments. In 1909, a Wellington photographer, Arthur Schaef was also very active building an aeroplane powered by a small J.A.P. engine. The engine was found unsuitable however, but Percy Fisher, an associate of Schaef's, produced a 30 HP engine of his own and in 1911 the aircraft named "N.Z. Vogel" roared along the sands of Lyall Bay and briefly hoisted itself into the air, much to the excitement of the onlookers.
After several propellers had been tried, and numerous hops into the
ether, the best about 150 feet in distance and a few feet in altitude,
Schaef decided to look for more operating room. He moved to Hagley
Park in Christchurch, but was frustrated by hundreds of cyclists and onlookers,
and finally broke the engine crankshaft. Undaunted, he returned to Wellington and tried the water of Evans
Bay, equipped with a new aeroplane on floats. This being also unsuccessful,
he was soon back on the beach, sometimes returning to the water involuntarily
at the end of a high speed dash. Schaef's ambitions were finally dashed when his aeroplane was destroyed
in a shed fire.