The Return of the Curtiss Pusher

The Curtiss Pusher flies over Lewiston in 1910. [Courtesy, Idaho Historical Society]

In 1903 the epic flight of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk enthralled the world. But it wouldn't be until October 13, 1910, that Idahoans experienced their first taste of air travel. That's when the Curtiss Pusher lifted off in front of the grandstand at the Lewiston-Clarkston fair.

Today, if you live near Lewiston, Idaho, you might think you've hopped a ride on the Way-Back machine, because there it is, the Curtiss Pusher, looking like it did more than 100 years ago.

Two men are principally responsible for the return of the vintage aircraft to Idaho: Dean Wilson and Jim Otey. "We got this phone call from this fellow who had stumbled across these plans," explained Jim Otey. So with help from other retired pilots in the Lewiston area, the men began work on the replica, finishing it in time to fly the plane on October 13th, the centennial celebration of the first flight in Idaho.

Dean Wilson & Jim Otey stand next to the Curtiss Pusher. [© Lewiston Tribune/Barry Kough]

Because Dean Wilson was the principal builder, he flew the plane first. "We knew the rudder worked and we knew the elevators worked without ever getting off the ground. It was just a matter if the ailerons would work. Finally, enough is enough. You've got to fly!"

The first flight was, thankfully, uneventful. "I checked to see if the ailerons worked, and they did; I only had about half throttle and I never changed it. I just made a real abbreviated pattern and got back on the ground. My tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth!"

Jim Otey, a retired flight engineer from Boeing, was the next to fly. "Every time, there's a little bit of a feeling in the seat of your pants that I hope everything's been done correctly. Well, working with Dean, we knew everything was in the right place. And once I got on the runway and brought the power up, I was a little surprised that it accelerated as quickly and became airborne as quickly as it did. But from that moment on, I knew I had complete control of the machine, and it was just simply a fun thing.

Jim Otey flies the Curtiss Pusher. [© Lewiston Tribune/Barry Kough]

"It has been as good as we could have expected, considering how old the design is, how little we actually knew about how it could fly except from some reports that we had read over time. But it worked out better than we expected."

The original creator of the Curtiss Pusher, Glenn Curtiss, was a competitor of the Wright Brothers. He was actually a motorcycle racer who held the world speed record and decided he could build airplanes, too. "He knew how to improve on things," said Otey, "so he borrowed -- or stole -- some of the ideas from the Wright Brothers, incorporated them into his own ideas, made improvements, and by 1909 he had a very controllable, predictable flying machine."

"Like the Wright Brothers said, once you learn the magician's trick, it's easy," said Wilson, who was recently inducted into the Experimental Aircraft Association Homebuilders Hall of Fame."But they had to figure it out, and it's a wonder they didn't kill themselves doing it. But they had the presence of mind to never get over three feet off the ground until they learned to fly."

Jim Otey flies the Curtiss Pusher. [© Lewiston Tribune/Barry Kough]

While the replica built by Wilson and Otey looks very much like the original plane that flew more than 100 years ago, there are some differences, in the ailerons and landing gear, for example. "We've had the advantage of 100 years of learning and a great advantage in the experience of Dean and all the aircraft he has built," said Otey.

"Some people would look at this and say, well that's not what they had on the original. But we are living through this experience, and some of the originals did not, so we found this a very acceptable way of doing business."