Did he or didn’t he?

THROUGH various articles, books, radio and TV programs, most New Zealanders will be familiar with the name Richard Pearse. Many are convinced that Pearse flew before the first official flight in history, made by the Wright brothers on 17th Dec 1903. Some are indignant that Pearse has not received the recognition that he deserved. The best book on the subject is The Riddle of Richard Pearse by Gordon Ogilvie first published in 1973 and revised in 1994. Ogilvie provides an objective account and he personally discovered some of the most important evidence in this case. Nevertheless he draws some strange conclusions at times.

When Pearse died in 1953, there had been little interest in his activities. In 1955, George Bolt acquired an old aeroplane built by Pearse (but not Pearse’s original plane) and publicity about this brought out a number of people with amazing stories to tell. Some of these indicated that Pearse had flown his first machine, and the earliest flight might have been in 1903. As the Wrights flew only at the end of that year, there was a possibility that Pearse had flown first.

Interest grew through the 1970s culminating in a TV program in December 1975. This was an early version of the “drama-documentary”, one of those programs that combines fact and fiction to thoroughly muddle the audience’s perceptions. Since then, there has virtually been a Pearse industry in New Zealand. A government building, an apartment building, a street, an airport, and at least one restaurant have been named after him. He has featured on a postage stamp, in a play and in more TV programs. By the roadside near where he is supposed to have made his early flights stands a memorial, a replica of his plane on a pedestal.

Over 20 witnesses were found, who gave evidence (some on oath) that they had seen Pearse fly his plane in the early years of the century. Unfortunately, much of the evidence was contradictory, and nothing was actually written down until after Pearse had died.

Thus all these statements are about events which had occurred at least 50 years earlier. Some described the plane in such detail that it is possible to see that they were describing pictures of early planes that flew overseas — the described item being nothing like the plane built by Pearse.

Most descriptions of the distance varied from about 40m to 400m, although they did not all claim to be observing the same flight. John Casey described a flight in March 1903 in which Pearse flew two and a half circuits of a field at a height of about 18 metres in a flight lasting about 10 minutes and covering about 2.5km.

Such a feat would have been remarkable. If this story is true, Pearse has suffered a serious injustice. But an average flight speed of 15kph is clearly ridiculous.

Casey was about 7 when this event is supposed to have happened. Most of the attention has centred on trying to determine the date on which Pearse was first seen to fly. Was it early in 1903? Such a date would require a serious historical revision.

All such attempts are futile because Pearse never flew at all. At least, he never made a controlled flight of the type needed to get him into record books. It is not necessary to consult witnesses about this (they are all dead anyway) because documentary evidence is available.

The Temuka Leader published a story on 14 December 1909; the reporter, after interviewing Pearse, wrote:

He has already made some trials and has been off the ground several times, but it is not easy to balance her. He has improved on past performances every time and in his latest effort flew about 25 yards.

Bleriot had already flown across the English Channel.

Pearse himself wrote letters to newspapers setting out clearly what he had done (and not done). George Bolt discovered newspaper cuttings in 1958, and Gordon Ogilvie later traced them. The first was to the Dunedin Evening Star in 1915. The second was to the Christchurch Star in 1928. This states, in Pearse’s own words:

At the trials it would start to rise off the ground when a speed of twenty miles an hour was attained. This was not sufficient to work the rudders, so, on account of its huge size and low speed it was uncontrollable and would spin around broadside-on directly it left the ground. So I never flew with my first experimental plane.

What could be clearer than that?

So where does this leave the eyewitnesses and their detailed accounts of events which never happened? There is no reason to suppose that these people were anything but sincere. They provide an excellent example of how false memories can seem real to those who possess them.

The Richard Pearse affair should be of great interest to skeptics. It illustrates the unreliability of old memories and what is optimistically called “oral history”. It also shows how uncritical reports in the media can convince large numbers of people that events that never occurred had actually happened.

Without bothering as to who flew first, try asking people, “Did Richard Pearse build his own aeroplane and fly it in front of witnesses about the beginning of this century?” We have Richard Pearse’s own opinion as to the correct answer. It is “No”.

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