The first contracted American fighter, the Pigeon Fraser was both ahead of and behind its time.
When the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, the U.S. Army found it had a lot of catching up to do. That especially applied to aviation, in which European advances made in the crucible of the Western Front had left the Americans far behind. While U.S. Army observers visited the front to study the state of the art, the government sought out companies that might produce new, up-to-date aircraft capable of satisfying projected wartime requirements.
One warplane type with which the aviation section of the intelligence branch of the Army Signal Corps (later to become the U.S. Army Air Service) had no experience was the pursuit or fighter plane. Only that fact can explain how, at a time when such fast, nimble and deadly machines as the Albatros D.III, Spad VII and Bristol Fighter were dogfighting over France, the first fighter to be officially contracted by the U.S. government was an awkward-looking wire-braced monoplane, the Pigeon Fraser Scout.
The Scout’s designer, George Norman Albree, was born in Boston, Mass., on February 3, 1888, graduated from Amherst College in 1911 and embarked on a career as an aeronautical engineer. The manufacturer that brought his conception to reality was the Pigeon Hollow Spar Company of East Boston, founded in 1830 as the Henry Pigeon Mast and Spar Company. Renamed in 1900, the firm had built automobiles and gondolas for airships before venturing into heavier-than-air flight in 1916 with a monoplane designed by Roscoe P. Timson and powered by a 50-hp Gnôme rotary engine.
Like the first Pigeon design, Albree’s Scout was a conventional wood-framed, canvas-covered monoplane, but it looked sturdier than its predecessor, with a compact fuselage, mainly wood-framed and canvas-covered, but boasting a plywood upper decking that incorporated a headrest for the pilot. The wing featured completely flat undersurfaces, presaging airfoils of the future, and equally unusual wheels: A series of springs, serving as the spokes, constituted the shock-absorbing part of the undercarriage. The most distinctive aspect of Albree’s design, however, was its lack of elevators—instead, the fuselage was hinged so that the entire tail moved up and down to control incidence. In retrospect, this could be considered an early example of the all-moving tail surfaces often seen on modern jet planes, but in 1917 it proved to be a dangerous innovation.
Sufficiently impressed with the potential in Albree’s imaginative approach, the government ordered two prototypes of his Scout on April 17, 1917, given serial numbers 116 and 117. The first, delivered to Langley Field, Va., in September, was 24 feet long. Its single wire-braced wing was reminiscent of the obsolete Morane Saulnier and Fokker monoplane fighters of 1915, and its span of 37 feet 11 inches was excessive for a plane that was expected to be able to handle violent maneuvers in combat. Power was provided by a 100-hp Gnôme rotary engine, although it was also tested with a Novus rotary. Takeoff weight was 1,250 pounds. A second Scout arrived at Langley in November, but both planes were transferred to McCook Field, Ohio, for testing.
The first thing the Signal Corps did was static-test the original Pigeon Fraser’s wings, placing an increasing number of sandbags on them until the structure gave way. The second plane was flight-tested in December, but soon after taking off on its first flight it crashed and burned, killing its pilot.
The Army was appalled, but Albree was undaunted. Recovering one of the wing panels, he repaired it and attached it to a third plane that he was convinced would recoup his fortunes. By then, however, the Army had received enough information on the wartime realities of fighter aviation to declare the Pigeon Fraser Scout “too old-fashioned, unreliable and slow,” and canceled the contract before the third prototype was completed. The Army would try many other fighter designs, ranging from mediocre to visionary to terrifying, but in spite of genuinely promising offerings it never adopted one for production before the war ended on November 11, 1918. By then, U.S. Army Air Service fighter pilots had fought their war in French-built Nieuport 28s, Spad VIIs and XIIIs, and British Sopwith Camels.
Upon its completion, the third Scout was put into storage at the Pigeon Hollow Spar Company’s factory. Albree is believed to have built a fourth plane for his own use. The designer did well for himself in later years, as evidenced by his legacy, the nonprofit George Norman Albree Trust. But he never forgave the U.S. Army for what he regarded as an unfair dismissal of a fighter concept of great potential. As late as 1978 he insisted that he had been the victim of a government conspiracy. George Albree died in New Hampshire in November 1986 at the ripe old age of 98.
Incredibly, the third Pigeon Fraser Scout built has survived intact. The Pigeon Hollow Spar Company was still active, manufacturing watercraft, until 1979. In 1961 Cole Palen discovered the plane, still in company storage, and on November 15 of that year purchased it for his aerodrome at Old Rhinebeck, N.Y. Restored by Palen’s dedicated team, this unique aerial oddity can still be seen at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome—though understandably, given its past track record, it is not a part of the flying show.
Originally published in the March 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.