This week, 17 December 2003, marks the centenary of “first powered flight” in a fully controllable aircraft - the Wright brothers` Kitty Hawk Flyer - which sustained itself in the air for twelve seconds and flew 120 feet. Of the four test flights made that day by Orville and Wilbur Wright, the longest was 852 feet at a speed of some 34 mph.
This was undoubtedly a significant day for aviation and of course the event is given official acclaim and forever etched in history. However, many New Zealanders believe that on the other side of the world a kiwi achieved powered flight months before the Wright brothers did. Richard Pearse, a South Island farmer is deemed to have flown his home-built aircraft 150 yards, powered by his own designed and built two-cylinder engine.
Whether or not Richard Pearse actually left the ground before the Wright brothers did remains an issue for debate. Although significant as a pointer to New Zealand`s early and continuing aviation excellence, the issue is irrelevant in the context of the startling developments in powered flight that followed. The advances in engine technology were the building blocks to modern jet aircraft that, one hundred years on, routinely fly across land and oceans at speeds in excess of 1000 mph.
Today, Air New Zealand`s largest aircraft, the Boeing 747-400 regularly operates non-stop services between Auckland & Los Angeles - a distance of 10,488 kilometres flown in about 12 hours; and Los Angeles & London - a distance of 8,759 kilometres flown in just over 10 hours.
However, it took some 36 years after the Wright brothers, in 1939, for Air New Zealand`s forerunner international airline (then named Tasman Empire Airways Limited - TEAL) to commence its first inaugural flight in an Empire class flying boat between Sydney and Auckland.
Eight years later, in 1947, New Zealand`s domestic airline (then named National Airways Corporation - NAC) began licensed operations, serving eighteen towns and cities in New Zealand as well as services to several Pacific Islands destinations.
In 1978, following the merger of both airlines, the new Air New Zealand fleet comprised 36 aircraft: eight McDonell Douglas DC10-30s; three DC8-52s; eight Boeing 737-200s; thirteen Fokker F27-100s and four Fokker F27-500s.
At this time the main focus of the airline was serving the New Zealand, South West Pacific and Australian markets. However, the company had established early links with North America (Los Angeles) London and Hong Kong.
Currently, the Air New Zealand fleet has some 86 aircraft (and growing with the steady delivery of the new Airbus A320 aircraft) and the airline directly operates to 45 cities in 15 countries, including 24 destinations within New Zealand.