In 1909, the G.H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company delivered the firm's first airplane, a pusher design with elevators in the front, called the Golden Flyer, to the New York Aeronautical Society. In 1911, Curtiss began to concentrate on the military market, selling three airplanes to the U.S. Navy. Curtiss continued the evolution of the pusher design with the development of the D-II (the Golden Flyer was considered the Model D) and the D-III, to which a second set of elevators were added to the rear in place of the fixed horizontal stabilizer formerly used on the D and D-II models.
The Curtiss D-III Headless Pusher resulted from an accident incurred by noted exhibition pilot, Lincoln Beachey. While flying in a competition with a standard Curtiss D-III, Beachey hit a fence upon landing and destroyed the front elevator. Rather than drop out, Beachey continued to fly without the front elevator control and found that the aircraft performed better than before. Navy pilots had independently realized that stability was enhanced without the forward elevator and they removed them from their airplanes. Curtiss concurred with the results and began producing the 1912 Model D Headless Pusher as a new offering.
The pusher biplane design developed by Glenn H. Curtiss between 1909 and 1912 was among the most successful and important aircraft of the pioneer era. Not only did Curtiss produce these airplanes in large numbers, but numerous copies and variations were built by others.
On May 29, 1909, the G.H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company delivered the firm's first airplane to the New York Aeronautical Society. This airplane, called the Golden Flyer because of its golden-yellow silk covering and the orange shellac coating on the wood, was the first sale of an airplane to a civil owner in the United States. The Aeronautical Society purchased the airplane from Curtiss for $5,000, with the added stipulation that Curtiss teach two of its members to fly.
The Golden Flyer was a single-seat pusher aircraft with single-surface wings (rubberized silk fabric covering only the top of the wings), a biplane forward elevator on long forward booms, and a fixed horizontal stabilizer and rudder on long rear booms. The airplane sat on a three-wheel landing gear with the nose wheel fairly far forward, a feature intended to prevent nose-overs.
Directional control of the airplane was accomplished by turning a steering wheel on the control column left or right, fore and aft movement of the column controlled climb and descent, and roll was achieved by leaning left or right against a shoulder yoke that actuated the ailerons. The airplane was powered by a 25 horsepower, four-cylinder Curtiss engine, driving a single six-foot laminated wooden propeller.
Before delivering the Golden Flyer, Glenn Curtiss won the Scientific American Trophy with it for a second time in 1909. Shortly after the Golden Flyer was delivered to the New York Aeronautical Society, Curtiss was selected by the Aero Club of America to be the sole American participant in the first international aviation meet to be held in Reims, France, August 22-29, 1909. For this event, Curtiss designed and built a new airplane that would be known as the Reims Racer.
The Reims Racer was similar to the Golden Flyer, but had a shortened wingspan and was covered with gray silk fabric. It was powered by a 50 horsepower Curtiss V8 engine. Curtiss won the coveted Gordon Bennett Aviation Cup at Reims with an average speed of 47.6 mph. With prize money of $7,600 at Reims, Curtiss went on to Brescia, Italy, where he won the grand prize and altitude prize, adding another $7,000 to his winnings. Curtiss returned to the United States an international hero.
In 1911, Curtiss began to concentrate on the military market and specifically on the aviation requirements of the U.S. Navy. The Navy purchased three Curtiss airplanes in 1911. Shortly before, Curtiss pilot Eugene Ely created a sensation when he made a successful takeoff from the USS Birmingham on November 14, 1910. He built upon the feat on January 18, 1911, when he landed a Curtiss pusher on a platform built on the after deck of the cruiser, USS Pennsylvania. After having lunch with naval officers in the wardroom, Ely took off from the same platform and flew back to shore. The flights marked the beginning of carrier aviation.
Curtiss continued the evolution of the pusher design with the development of the D-II (the Golden Flyer was considered the Model D), which relocated the ailerons from the front interplane struts to the rear ones. The latter change improved the efficiency of the wings and the ailerons.
The development of the D-III quickly followed. This model incorporated covering on both the top and bottom surfaces of the wings, enclosing the ribs and spars and adding 3 to 6 mph in speed. The forward elevator was moved back slightly and placed almost directly above the front wheel, and elevators were added to the rear in place of the fixed horizontal stabilizer formerly used on the D and D-II models. The addition of elevators in the rear led directly to the development of the Curtiss D-III Headless Pusher, which resulted from a propitious accident incurred by noted exhibition pilot, Lincoln Beachey.
While flying in a competition, Beachey hit a fence upon landing which destroyed the front elevator. Rather than drop out, Beachey continued to fly without the front elevator and found to his pleasant surprise that the aircraft performed better than before. As it turned out, Navy pilots had independently realized that stability was enhanced without the forward elevator and they removed them from their airplanes. Curtiss concurred with the results and began producing the 1912 Model D Headless Pusher as a new offering.
Curtiss developed the world's first successful seaplane pusher, or hydroaeroplane as he called it, in 1911 when he fitted a standard pusher with pontoons. Naval seaplanes were fitted with a single pontoon and wingtip floats and civilian seaplanes were characteristically fitted with twin pontoons. Glenn Curtiss became the first recipient of the Collier Trophy in 1912 for his development of the seaplane.
The Curtiss D-IV variant, intended for the military market, appeared in 1911. Essentially the same as the D-III model, except for increased wingspan and the addition of a passenger seat behind the pilot, the D-IV was designed to be quickly dismantled for ease in transport. This feature, incorporated in other Curtiss designs, appealed to exhibition pilots and helped Curtiss command up to 80 percent of the exhibition market. Curtiss' promotional materials pointed out that the express charge for shipping a Curtiss airplane from New York to San Francisco was $121, compared to $1,000 for other makes of aircraft.
The Curtiss Company went on to further acclaim with the development of the flying boat (for which Curtiss received a second Collier Trophy in 1913) and the famous JN-4D Jenny World War I trainer.
Glenn Curtiss always had a fondness for his pre-war pusher series of aircraft. In 1919, a replica of a 1912-style Curtiss Headless Pusher was constructed at a Curtiss research facility in Garden City, New York, under the personal direction of Glenn Curtiss. The replica incorporated some parts from original 1912 aircraft and was initially powered by a Curtiss OX-5 engine. It was later fitted with a 50 horsepower Curtiss V8 engine of the type that powered the Reims Racer in 1909. The replica Curtiss D-III Headless Pusher was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1925.