A Moment Of Genius, Years Of Obscurity

One historical event few Americans will hear about this month is the centennial anniversary of the first flight of New Zealand aviator and inventor Richard Pearse. Most people in this country don't know his name. But many in New Zealand believe Pearse was the first person to fly.

Pearse was a cattle farmer who built and flew a bamboo-framed mono-wing airplane far enough and high enough to crash-land on a lonely country road on top of a 12-foot-high gorse hedge. It was March 31, 1903, historians and witnesses say, eight months before the Wright brothers flew.

At the end of the month, more than 5,000 revelers are expected to join a parade and air show in Timaru, a port town near Pearse's farm. But given the lack of coverage by the American media so far, I doubt many here will notice. While newspaper editors are creating new spins on the Wright brothers' upcoming centennial, Pearse's achievement is not even on their radars. How sad that a brilliant day in world history is being ignored.

My sentiment is partly personal. Pearse is my great-great uncle. I was born on a sheep farm mere miles from where he made his first flight. I was 5 years old when town officials unveiled a monument in Pearse's honor. I can remember my dad, an avid ultralight pilot, flying overhead in his own plane and the headline that appeared in The Timaru Herald the next day: in the shadow of a great uncle. I am proud to be Pearse's descendant and keen to spread the word. But as a journalist, I'm also motivated by a desire to see all takes on man's first flight reported--not just the American version.

I love the opportunities the United States has given me and Americans' pioneering and positive attitudes. This was what I could not find in beautiful New Zealand and why I left at the age of 22. But for a country so huge and ethnically diverse, I'm surprised by the media's disinterest in international events. The Americans I know travel often and enjoy learning about foreign cultures. It seems editors aren't giving their readers enough credit.

There are a few signs of progress. The number of biographies on Pearse is growing. A few years ago the Lonely Planet travel guides began to include Pearse's history in its New Zealand books. In 1996 the Discovery Channel did a Pearse documentary. The reporter even flew in Dad's plane.

Otherwise, it is as if Pearse did not exist. When I approach editors with his story I'm usually told that the standard historical account will do. This narrow-minded, isolationist attitude hurts. New Zealanders, like those in most Western countries, watch America's news and sitcoms, acknowledge its holidays on their calendars and eat in its fast-food chains. I don't expect Americans to hear as much about New Zealanders as Kiwis hear about them--after all, my birth country is the size of California; sheep (39 million) far outnumber people (almost 4 million). But the fact that people here have never heard of an accomplishment as big as Pearse's is a signal that the relationship needs to be more reciprocal.

But the media isn't totally to blame for Pearse's obscurity. He also had the misfortune to make history among people who couldn't appreciate his contribution. Waitohi (where Pearse first flew) is a rural community in the middle of nowhere. He was ostracized by local farmers for having crazy hair and being more interested in flying than in raising cows. By the end of his life he was so disheartened that he gave up inventing and died penniless and alone. It was 50 years after his flight that relatives discovered the relics of his plane and experts at the Museum of Transport and Technology shipped them up to Auckland.

The Wrights were born in a country that embraced innovation. Their experimental flights in North Carolina were reported in the newspapers of Dayton, Ohio, and Cincinnati. Less than three years after their flight, the U.S. Patent Office granted the brothers a patent for their plane, and in 1909 the U.S. government awarded them a military contract. Today, there are airports named in their honor. The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission and the Wright Experience, a nonprofit organization, are promoting the Wright brothers' achievement with help from celebrities like John Travolta. The South Canterbury Aviation Heritage Center is doing its best to promote Pearse's big day--but how can it compete with that kind of attention?

The Wright brothers' flight and the belief that it was the world's first is as American as apple pie, one editor told me. I don't wish to convince Americans otherwise. It would be nice, though, if newspapers would at least acknowledge that on March 31 there will be a huge shindig going on thousands of miles away and that another account of aviation history exists.