Aviation Pioneers In Canterbury

May 1st, 2022

Captain Lorraine’s balloon shown taking off from Lancaster Park – Christchurch City Libraries

Over the years Canterbury has been home to many aviators. From Richard Pearse and Henry Wigram to Glenn Martin, Cantabrians have a history of pushing the boundaries in aviation and leading the way for the rest of the world.

Here’s a timeline of some of the aviation milestones in Canterbury’s history that have paved the way for today’s aerospace industry.

1899 – Captain Charles Lorraine, born David Mahoney, ascended from Lancaster Park in his balloon, The Empress. This was the third Christchurch-based flight and an attempt to set a new altitude record but was unfortunately unsuccessful.

The Richard Pearse Memorial in South Canterbury – New Zealand History

1902 – Richard Pearse built a plane in South Canterbury out of bamboo, tubular steel, wire and canvas powered by a lightweight two-cylinder engine that he also built himself. Shortly after completing his aircraft, he managed to sustain a flight of approximately 50 meters, one of the first observed flights in a heavier-than-air-aircraft.

1910 – George Bolt founded the Canterbury Aero Club, helping to make and fly gliders on the Port Hills. The club still operates today, offering training for people interested in flying.

1916 – Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Co. Ltd was formed, chaired by Sir Henry Wigram, and purchased land for an airfield that would later become the Wigram Aerodrome. Just months later, 40 pupils had enrolled and, two years after that, over 180 pilots had been trained.

1923 – Surplus military aircraft were gifted from the United Kingdom and Royal New Zealand Air Force bases were established as part of The New Zealand Permanent Air Force in Christchurch, at the Wigram Aerodrome, and in Auckland.

Wigram Aerodrome, after the first trans-Tasman flight by Charles Kingsford-Smith – Air Force Museum of New Zealand

1928 – Charles Kingsford-Smith completed the first non-stop flight over the Tasman Sea, landing at the Wigram Aerodrome.

1936 – Union Airways of New Zealand, which was founded a year prior, conducted its first scheduled flight from Dunedin to Christchurch. This marked the beginning of commercial domestic flights in New Zealand. 

1955 – Long distance flights from Christchurch to Antarctica began as part of Operation Deep Freeze, a US-lead mission to set up a permanent research station in Antarctica. Christchurch is still considered a major gateway to Antarctica, with the US, Italy and New Zealand flying to Antarctica from Christchurch, there are over 100 direct flights made every year. 

1963 – The University of Canterbury carried out a series of suborbital rocket launches for NASA at Kaitōrete Spit near Birdlings Flat. 

1980’s – Glenn Martin began the development of a single-person jetpack in his garage in Christchurch.

1988 – Yvonne Loader set the record for the greatest height gain by a glider, this record remains unbeaten. Yvonne has contributed enormously to aviation in Canterbury and made the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honours List Order of Merit for her services to gliding.

“It’s Business Time” lift-off on 11th November 2018, photo credit Rocket Lab

2007 – Southlander Peter Beck and Cantabrian Mark Rocket started commercial operations of Rocket Lab in Auckland. In 2018 Rocket Lab launched the Electron, making New Zealand the 11th country to put an object in orbit. 

2009 – The University of Canterbury began offering their world-class rocketry course. 

2017 – The University of Canterbury Aerospace group initially had around 25 members. Today it has over 350!

2017 – Wisk began flight testing of their world-first autonomous, electric air taxi above Lake Tekapo. Since this first flight, Wisk has worked closely with the New Zealand government to support the development of a thriving, innovative and safe drone sector in New Zealand and was the first industry partner in the Airspace Integration Trials. 

2021 – Project Tāwhaki in Kaitōrete Spit opens for aerospace applications and begins ecological restoration efforts.

Kea Aerospace flying the solar-powered X11 aircraft near Springfield

2022 – In January, Kea Aerospace achieved solar-powered perpetual flight by flying through the night and fully charging the batteries up the next day on a 36-hour flight near Springfield.


When we talk about aviation in Canterbury, there’s no one better known than Richard Pearse. Pearse was an eccentric and reclusive inventor born in South Canterbury in the late 1800s. Relying on accounts from townsfolk of the time, it’s believed that Pearse took a short flight in 1902, but the exact dates are unknown. Although technology has come a long way since then, Pearse’s aircraft design was similar to modern microlites. 

In recent years Canterbury has become a hub for an increasing number of aerospace companies. Industry players like Wisk, Pyper Vision and Dawn Aerospace have been attracted to the potential of the region and have operations here. Not only is Canterbury suited to aerospace because of its geography, connections and infrastructure, but the University of Canterbury is also producing numerous high-quality graduates.

Now, with the Aerospace New Zealand meetups, anyone with an interest in the industry has a place to meet and discuss upcoming developments. There’s an outstanding culture of helping each other to develop the aviation and space industries. 

The Air Force Museum of New Zealand, located on what was the Wigram Aerodrome, had this to say about the local aerospace industry, “With Christchurch having been at the forefront of early aviation in New Zealand over 100 years ago, through the efforts of the visionary businessman and former Mayor Sir Henry Wigram, it is fantastic to see the city once again at the cutting edge of aerospace innovation and development.” 

Kea Aerospace is excited to be involved in the renaissance of aerospace activity in Canterbury.


Thank you to the Air Force Museum of New Zealand for their assistance in collating content for this article.