New Zealander Richard Pearse, sometime in March 1902 on a remote South Canterbury, New Zealand, farm, got his aircraft into the air powered by an internal combustion engine of his own design. He took off along the road running near his family's farms at Waitohi, flew about 50 metres before crashing into a tall gorse hedge.
The precise date is not known because the event was not recorded in any official sense, but it was carried out in front of a small group of mainly children.
Pearce's achievements were not really known about outside his family and the immediate Waitohi area of South Canterbury until his death in 1953 and the discovery of a partly completed aircraft behind the house where he had last lived in Christchurch, NZ.
Pearse had died in Christchurch's Sunnyside mental hospital and when it came to tidy up his affairs and clear out his house someone realised that there was something significant here.
The discovery of this aircraft led to interest in this unknown, loner of a man and the subsequent revelations of his achievements.
The argument against Richard Pearse is based on the definition of "flight" and the claim that while Pearse may well have designed and built his own aircraft and got it into the air 17 or 18 months before Orville and Wilbur, he had no real control over it - witness the crash into the hedge - and thus he did not have "controlled" flight.
He flew his aircraft many more times - on one occasion flying up the bed of the nearby Opihi River for almost a kilometre and demonstrating real control. He crashed into the river on this occasion after the engine overheated and ran out of power.
Pearse took off from a paddock, aimed at a cliff that dropped off sheer into the riverbed - a drop of 25 metres that would almost certainly have killed or badly injured him if the aircraft hadn't flown.
Witnesses say they saw the plane flying from the moment it got up enough speed and they saw Pearse turn the plane to fly up the river.
Waitohi (pronounced Wai-tui locally) at the dawn of the 20th century was still remote and really was on the edge of civilisation. And Pearse worked by himself, for himself. One of the other reasons that so little of Pearse's exploits were known outside the Waitohi area is that many of the farming families in the region were Plymouth Brethren and regarded his attempts at flight as ungodly and ignored them.
When it became obvious that the history of Richard Pearse needed exploring George Bolt went straight to the tip that every farmer has on his farm. Several small parts of what's understood to have been the first plane were found.
At least two replicas of what's understood to be Pearse's first aircraft have been built. Pearse may have worked alone, but he did file his designs with the patent office and it's from these drawings that both replicas have been built. The first was the work of long-time Pearse investigator and supporter, Aucklander Geoff Rodliffe and it was powered by a modern, conventional microlight engine. Attempts to fly it were thwarted by bad weather and this machine now lies in a dark and dusty corner, out of sight and out of mind at MOTAT in Auckland.
The second was built in Timaru by a team of four people - two working on the aircraft and two building a replica of the original Pearse engine.