A response to Debbi Gardiner's "Bamboo Dick, First in Flight"

By Salon Staff

Published September 4, 2002 10:22PM (EDT)

[Read the story.]

Your 22-8-02 article on Richard Pearse, by Debbi Gardiner, was broadly welcome -- perhaps the best journalism yet on our neglected hero.

However, as New Zealand scientist and engineer admirers of Pearse, we wish to correct a few errors.

Insofar as Gardiner's novel term "monotype bicycle plane" has meaning, it is misleading. The first Pearse aircraft (1902) resembled a modern microlite, i.e., a monoplane with tricycle undercarriage, roll-resistant by placing the pilot (much of the mass) below the wing.

Gardiner says Pearse "replaced the usual aileron with a flap system" for the purpose of lateral control. This is confused. Pearse invented (and patented in 1906) ailerons, which he used from the first, calling them "horizontal rudders."

Worst of all, Gardiner suggests the Pearse Mk 1 plane had no prime mover: "by adding a flywheel he did away with the need for an engine, which saved himself considerable weight". This is as wrong as could be: Any flywheel capable of delivering a dozen or two horsepower at revs achievable in 1902-03 would have had to weigh much more than any engine of similar power.

Gardiner proceeds to attribute to one of us (G.R.) the assertion that "from 1906 onwards this method [the alleged use of a flywheel instead of an engine] came into general use." No New Zealander ever uttered such nonsense.

Pearse did make a fuel-fired engine, of higher power/weight ratio than any to that date, which powered the plane off the ground. He relied on the propeller to act in the role of flywheel. A replica of his horizontally opposed twin-cylinder engine nears completion in New Zealand, to power the Mk 1 replica plane.

Pearse's March 1903 flight is better attested than the Wrights' December 1903 takeoff. One or more flights in 1902 are also fairly well attested.

None of these events constituted "controlled powered flight" if defined to include not only takeoff but also lateral control -- flying around in a circuit to land near the takeoff point -- not achieved by the Wrights until 1905. But Pearse was the first to power off the ground. The first flight may have been as short as 50 meters, but some witnesses said 400 meters.

The Wrights had every advantage -- Lilienthal's book on gliders, and a good workshop within their successful cycle shop in Dayton. Pearse had nothing -- except blazing genius.

Many falsehoods have been published about Pearse. It is a shame that Ms. Gardiner has added to them because she did not allow checking of her draft by technical experts.

Better info is available here.

Geoffrey Rodliffe AMRAeS
Christopher Marks M.E
Robert Mann Ph.D
Auckland, New Zealand

The original story has been corrected.

Salon Staff

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