Story: Aviation

Page 1. The beginnings of aviation

All images & media in this story

Although the technical breakthrough of the internal combustion engine in the 1870s is associated with the arrival of the motor car, it was also the basis of a 20th-century revolution in transport – aviation. Flying heavier-than-air craft is one of humankind’s major technological achievements in recent history.

First flights in New Zealand

In New Zealand, as elsewhere, aviation began with experiments in the design, construction and testing of potential aircraft. Among such attempts were those of a talented and inventive South Island farmer, Richard William Pearse. Some time in 1902–1904 Pearse achieved ‘long hops’ in his flying machine constructed of bamboo, tubular steel, wire and canvas, but never the sustained, controlled flight that marked the advent of aviation. That historic accomplishment was claimed by the Americans Wilbur and Orville Wright in December 1903. Within a few years, Wilbur Wright was achieving flights lasting over an hour. In 1909 newspapers trumpeted Louis Blériot’s crossing of the English Channel. The age of aviation had arrived in America and Europe.

In New Zealand, attempts to fly continued. Herbert John Pither, John Pechugin, Henry Little, Arthur Shaef and others designed and constructed machines that taxied and sometimes rose briefly. In early February 1911 Vivian Walsh finally achieved sustained, controlled flight at Glenora Park, Papakura, in an imported biplane named Manurewa (floating bird).

Flying demonstrations

New Zealand aviators now turned to aircraft of tested design to embark on pioneering flights. In 1914 James William Humphreys Scotland, piloting his imported Caudron biplane, began a demonstration tour around New Zealand. He visited Invercargill, Gore, Timaru and Christchurch, to the wonder of earth-bound onlookers. The Caudron was put on a ferry to cross Cook Strait for a North Island tour, only to be wrecked by a Wellington storm.

Auckland citizens, however, were not denied the spectacle of flight. Early in 1914, Lieutenant Joseph Hammond demonstrated the noisy capacity of a Blériot aircraft to appreciative crowds at the Epsom Showgrounds. One flight over the city at a very low altitude lasted for an hour.

Wartime training

Aviation gained impetus from the advent of air warfare. During the First World War, the design and capability of aircraft advanced significantly. War also gave New Zealand’s aviation leaders an added purpose. In Auckland the Walsh brothers, Vivian and Leo, established the New Zealand Flying School at Kohimarama, using sea planes to train pilots, many of whom then went on to serve with the Royal Flying Corps in Britain. Henry Wigram followed suit in Christchurch, establishing the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company at Sockburn (later Wigram) air base.

By 1919 nearly 300 men had learned to fly at the two schools. The war over, some at least were keen to turn to civilian flying. War also left a stock of surplus aircraft, which Britain distributed to its loyal dominions. New Zealand accepted 33 planes, which were made available to individuals, aero clubs and the flying schools.

How to cite this page:

Peter Aimer, 'Aviation - The beginnings of aviation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

Story by Peter Aimer, published 12 Jun 2006