Even as a schoolboy, Pearse was fascinated by flight and excelled in engineering. One day he arrived at his one-room school with a contraption made of a cotton reel, a nailed board, a piece of string and the top of a tin can cut and twisted into a propeller. For the excitement of his classmates, he wound the string around the reel, tugged on it and sent the tin propeller shooting off from the nail.

By the time he finished his primary education, Pearse had invented a mechanical needle-threader for his mother, a "zoetrope" for his sisters that flicked still pictures to produce moving images, and a small steam engine made from a syrup can filled with water.

But with nine children, the family couldn't afford to send him to engineering school; instead, Pearse set up a workshop for inventing gadgets on the family farm.

With little expertise or financial assistance, Pearse toiled on, and by 1902 had built a two-cylinder, 25-horsepower engine. He then constructed a 25-foot monoplane with a tricycle undercarriage using tubular steel, wire and canvas.

"What he did was quite amazing for one man in a little village," says C. Geoffrey Rodliffe, a Pearse biographer who in the 1960s interviewed elderly witnesses to the flights. Evidence suggests five flights between March and July 10, 1903, Rodliffe said.

But outside of witness accounts, pinning down the precise date of Pearse's first flight in 1903 has been difficult. Records from a local hospital where he sought treatment for an injured collarbone after his plane crash were destroyed in a fire. A photograph of the craft stuck in the hedge taken the day after perished in a flood.

Nevertheless, supporters believe Pearse did fly before the Wrights and, if nothing else, that he should be recognized for the prophetic design features of his 1903 plane.

Pearse's plane was in some ways far ahead of the 1903 Wright Flyer. It had a tricycle landing gear with steerable nose wheel, more than 20 years ahead of its time; one wing rather than two; wing flaps and a rear elevator similar to modern aircraft; a propeller with variable-pitch blades - elements recaptured in the design of modern hang-glider aircraft.

"The Wrights got the recognition of being the first to fly, but if you look at the entirety of flight, he should get recognition for his vision," Jeff Pearse says.

Before his death in 1953 at the age of 75, Pearse built the Utility Plane, an inexpensive craft that he envisioned as the Model-T Ford of the airways, bringing aviation to anyone who could afford a car. The craft had fold-away wings designed for vertical takeoff and landing, but was never flown.

Pearse himself never claimed to have beaten the Wrights, saying he didn't consider his erratic descents to be sustained and controlled flight.

But in a country whose national symbol is the kiwi - a flightless bird - his efforts remain cause for celebration.

In Brazil, Kitty Hawk naysayers say history is on their side.

After all, they proudly point out, isn't the name of their native son, Alberto Santos-Dumont, the very first in the official record book of aviation kept by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale for his 197-foot flight on Oct. 23, 1906?

Doesn't history show that Santos-Dumont conducted his aviation experiments in public before huge crowds, rather than on the remote sands of a fishing village? Did he not make three public flights in 1906 - two years before Wilbur Wright made his first in Europe?

Santos-Dumont was first in flight, these Brazilians insist. The Wrights? Fliers-come-lately.

"History - yes, real History! - tells us through dozens of European and a fistful of American newspapers what really happened," supporter Roberto Rodrigues Mola says in a letter posted on the Internet. "And what happened wasn't a whisper message to my neighbor in a silly game, but a strong shout that traveled over the ocean at that time, and is echoing until the present days," he says in comparing news of the Wright's flight with Santos-Dumont's.

Many Brazilians consider Santos-Dumont the "Father of Aviation" partly because he demonstrated a public passion for flight, unlike the Wrights, who remained secretive as they prepared their airplane patent.

Nick Engler, director of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company and Museum of Pioneer Aviation in Dayton, Ohio, says part of the Brazilian bashing of the Wrights is the leftover legacy of history books written with a nationalistic slant during the country's dictatorial regime of the 1930s.

"They made Brazil sound like the end-all, be-all of technological development," Engler says. "So consequently, when you talk to a Brazilian about Santos-Dumont, you're not arguing facts, you're arguing religion."