Friday, July 8, 2011

Of Aviation Pioneers Old and New

Museum of Transportation and Technology Auckland
You don't have to believe that Richard Pearse was the first man on earth to fly a powered-aircraft though there's sufficient evidence to at least make a debate worthwhile. It is enough to know that in the days before the internet - that would be the spring prior to the flight of the Wright Brothers in December 1903 - and sixteen-thousand plus miles away from Kitty Hawk, a Kiwi inventor was working successfully on the same concept. Once I realized that, the rest of what I learned about New Zealand started to make sense.

Sculptures in No. 8 wire in Wellington
Throughout my recent stay, I heard about New Zealanders and number eight wire. This is the material originally used for fencing but which, on this remote island, quickly became the go-to product for building or repairing anything and everything. The inventiveness of the Kiwi is symbolized by number eight wire. 

Richard Pearse is also an symbol of how geographic isolation can retard progress. Who is to say if what Pearse learned working on his airplane might have been incorporated by Orville and Wilbur, had the three men known about each other?

That could not happen then.  That is the legacy of the airplane, or as Bill Gates famously said, "The airplane became the first World Wide Web, bringing people, languages, ideas and values together." But all is not seamless interaction, not yet.

While in New Zealand I visited a number of companies working on thrilling and transforming aviation concepts. At Martin Jetpack in Christchurch, Glenn Martin has been working for twenty years on a Jetsons-like one-person, vertical takeoff aircraft. It's the real live version of the transporter my son Joseph has been asking me to make for him for years. Only in Martin's case, its actually flying and there's a good chance it will fly commercially, too.

In Auckland, I had a coffee with Peter Beck, founder and chief of Rocket Lab  who is working on a number of projects;  economical and effective launching of small mass satellites for businesses and rapidly deployed rocket systems for defense forces. This is a company of maybe a dozen or so science geeks whose work is challenging large, bureaucratic and expensive European and American aerospace contractors.

Rocket Lab photo of Atea-1 launch
Martin Aerospace and Rocket Labs are on the cusp of remarkable advances and yet they are working in relative obscurity. 

Is Gates right that aviation has connected the world of ideas? Or is geography still playing a role in destiny as it did in  Richard Pearse's day? Across New Zealand, in dusty hangars and unexceptional business offices there are examples of dazzling inventiveness beneath the veneer.

Whether a modest public front is itself another characteristic of the Kiwi personality, I can't say. But I can testify that extraordinary things are going on in New Zealand, keeping alive a tradition as simple as the re-purposing of number eight wire and as daring as Richard Pearse's dreams.


Bernard Bernoulli said...

Very nice post. The boys from the Plane Crazy Down Under podcast put me onto a film being made about a guy reconstructing Pearse's plane, to see if it could fly. That will be interesting!

I recently added a post to Junior Flyer website on the Martin Jetpack... I really want one of those toys!

Christine Negroni said...

Thanks for the link to the movie, Bernard. Good luck with it. Let us know when it comes out.

Tim Kern said...

Even though Pearse wasn't able to control his flight, he receives a lot less credit than he deserves. How many of us, for instance, would volunteer for such an assignment? Imagine if Yuri Gagarin or Alan Shepherd (the first two men in space, also unable to control their flights) had also designed and built their rockets?

Still, the Wrights represented THE breakthrough. Yes, it was a terrible airplane; but it was the first.

nyc academy said...

As far as i know wright brothers are more prominent when it comes to flying plane in a normal one or controlling it. Thanks to them and to all people who contributed to our fly age.