By Geoffrey Rodliffe
Richard William Pearse spent much of his lifetime building light, powerful aero-engines and constructing aircraft for his numerous attempts at powered flight. His most spectacular flights were those made after the turn of the century using a horizontally opposed, twin-cylinder engine fitted to a high-wing monoplane; both plane and engine were built by Pearse using materials available in the locality. The last of his planes with its unusual engine is now on view at the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland, but only parts of two of his earlier engines remain; these were recovered from a rubbish dump after being buried and lost for many years.
A considerable amount of research has been undertaken during the past ten years to ascertain the size and shape of the first aircraft, and it has now been possible to construct a plane which we believe closely resembles that used by Pearse during the years 1902-3, when he made many hops and short flights. This replica is on view at the Transport Museum and was also used to make a television dramatised documentary film which has been screened in New Zealand. A question often asked is: "Did this man, a farmer's son with no technical training and with severely limited facilities and funds, really succeed where so many others had failed?" The proof can be seen in the advanced design of his engines and aircraft, which had many original features not then found elsewhere; and although many of his ideas were never developed to their full extent nevertheless his engine produced more than adequate power for the purpose of getting his plane airborne.
The motor car did not appear in his locality until some years after Pearse had built and run his petrol engine; his design was based on the steam engines and early oil engines in use in the district, supplemented by information gathered from engineering books. During his schooldays Pearse constructed a model string-pull helicopter and flying machines; he was completely engrossed in the mechanics of flight to the detriment of other studies. His family tree (traced back to the 17th Century when an ancestor was granted a Coat of Arms) reveals a number of distinguished individuals, and his contemporaries in the family circle were accomplished in music and art and in sport. Unfortunately Richard was not given the opportunity to study engineering -his oldest brother was already studying medicine in Edinburgh and the four remaining brothers had to be farmers.
In the seclusion of his cottage, which was in the centre of a 100 acre block, Pearse installed a forge and constructed a lathe; he used the cottage as a storeroom and workshop but continued to live at his parents home. The farm boundary had untrimmed gorse hedges which reached a height of 12 ft. and were very thick, thus providing the seclusion he desired so that he could work without being observed and ridiculed. Only two or three people were welcome visitors, and one neighbour often brought him meals when he was working late into the night.
Richard was known locally as "Mad Pearse" and many folk regarded his activities as an affront to their religious beliefs and the work of the Devil! Birds were equipped with wings and destined to fly: man was not. They were also aggravated by the noise of his engine late at night which disturbed their slumber and frightened their cattle. It was in this environment that he worked, mostly in secret, and so became increasingly withdrawn from village life. However he, like his brother Warne, was an expert tennis player ant excelled at golf, and these activities would seem to have been the mainstay of his social life.
Richard Pearse died after a heart attack on the 29th July, 1953, at the age of 75. It can be said that he died a frustrated and disappointed man, his hopes and aspirations reduced to nothing. Always shy and sensitive, in old age he became more and more shut off from those around him. For the two years preceding death he was a patient in a hospital in Christchurch, being no longer able to look after himself. It is left to those that follow him to pay tribute to his undoubted genius and to the perseverance against overwhelming odds which has merited him an honored place among the pioneers of aviation.