New Zealand is an air-minded country. In the early years of the century its aviation pioneers and inventors kept abreast of advances in the rest of the world, and the subsequent development of the industry has been such that in recent years New Zealanders rank among the greatest users of air transport.
At some time between 1900 and 1904 Richard William Pearse, of the Waitohi Valley, near Timaru, designed and built a high-wing monoplane of unusual and advanced design, constructed of steel and bamboo, with aileron and elevator controls. Pearse made a number of short flights at a very early date, but it is not certain that he flew any distance before 31 March 1904. The first recognised flight by a heavier-than-air machine was that by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on 17 December 1903. New Zealand thus very nearly produced the first successful aeroplane in the world. The Pearse machine was ahead of the Wrights' in the use of ailerons, or movable flaps on the wings to control the aircraft, which Pearse invented and patented (patent No. 21476, gazetted 8 August 1907), whilst the Wright brothers used a system of warping the wings. Ailerons are now universal. There were other important New Zealand pioneers. Bertram Ogilvie, of Napier, had built, by 1909, a triplane fitted with ailerons, and he subsequently made a number of flights in England in a machine built by Handley Page to his design. Other early experimenters included A. W. Schaef, of Wellington, Pither, of Invercargill, Fisher, of Tauherenikau, and the brothers Hector and Seaforth McKenzie, of Marton. The brothers Leo and Vivian Walsh, of Auckland, constructed a standard Wright bi-plane in 1910, and by 1915 completed a flying boat to their own design with which they carried out passenger flights over Auckland Harbour. In October 1915 the Walsh brothers opened the New Zealand Flying School at Kohimarama, Auckland, which provided training for many pilots who flew in the RFC and RNAS in the First World War. During the war years the Canterbury Aviation Co. was also formed and provided flying training; this company was taken over by the Government in 1923 and formed the nucleus of the New Zealand Air Force .
The war had stimulated aeronautical development, and New Zealand, like other nations, slowly recognised the possibilities of aviation as a means of transport in peacetime, and its inherent dangers. Accordingly, an Act to control civil aviation in the Dominion became law on 1 March 1919 and provided for the regulation of flying activities, the licensing of flying schools and personnel, the registration of aircraft, and other matters. In 1920 an Air Board was established to consider and recommend upon all aviation activities and proposals in New Zealand (both civil and military) and to study aviation activities throughout the world. The post of Director of Air Services was established in 1925, and that of Controller of Civil Aviation in 1931. In 1937 the control of the Royal New Zealand Air Force and of civil aviation was removed from the Defence Department by the establishment, under the Air Department Act, of the Air Department. In 1964 a Department of Civil Aviation was established under the Civil Aviation Act.
The aero club movement, which began effectively in the late 1920s, played. an important part in the development of airmindedness and in the creation of organisations able to provide essential aviation services. By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, 14 major clubs existed, together with subsidiary organisations. Their national value was recognised by Government subsidies for pilot training, by the free issue of training aircraft, and by grants for the purchase of training machines. In June 1930 the New Zealand Aero Club (later entitled “Royal”) was formed to coordinate the activities of the clubs.