A decade after the end of World War Two, Canada built a jet which pushed technology to its limits. But its demise showed why smaller nations found it difficult to compete in the Jet Age.
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In the early years of the Cold War, Canada decided to design and build the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world.
Canada is well known for its rugged bush planes, capable of rough landings and hair-raising take-offs in the wilderness. From the late 1930s, the North American country had also started to manufacture British-designed planes for the Allied war effort. Many of these planes were iconic wartime designs like the Hawker Hurricane fighter and Avro Lancaster bomber.
Ambitious Canadian politicians and engineers weren’t satisfied with this. They decided to forge a world-leading aircraft manufacturing industry out of the factories and skilled workforce built up during the war. Tired of manufacturing aircraft designed by others, this new generation of Canadian leaders were determined to produce Canadian designs. Avro Aircraft, the Canadian airplane maker created after the war, was the company that would deliver their dream.
Freed from the set ways-of-thinking of Avro’s more established rivals, the firm’s engineers were able to work on revolutionary jet fighters, commercial airliners, flying saucers and even a space plane. They placed Canada at the technological cutting edge of the new Jet Age.
In so doing, these engineers challenged notions of what small countries like Canada could achieve in the hi-tech industries of the day, even if convincing politicians to stump up the cash for them was an altogether trickier business.
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Then came the Arrow. On 4 October 1957, 14,000 people watched a large hangar on the outskirts of Toronto open to reveal a beautiful, large, white, delta-wing aircraft. The plane was the Avro Arrow interceptor. A third longer and broader than today’s Eurofighter Typhoon, the Arrow could fly close to Mach 2.0 (1,500 mph, or the maximum speed of Concorde), and had the potential to fly even faster. It was Canada’s Can$250m (US$1,58bn today) bid to become an aviation superpower.
The project was genuinely ground-breaking. Avro’s engineers had been allowed to build a record-breaker without compromise. But Canadians would soon discover that the supersonic age had made aviation projects so expensive that only a handful of countries could carry them out – and Canada, unfortunately, wasn’t one of them.
The advert for Avro Aircraft celebrating the “first 50 years of powered flight in Canada 1909–1959” had only just been printed when on “Black Friday”, 20 February 1959, the loudspeaker of the Avro Aircraft factory on the outskirts of Toronto crackled to life. Thousands of workers heard the company president announce “that f—— prick in Ottawa” (the newly elected Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker) had cancelled the entire Arrow programme. Later that day, 14,500 skilled men and women lost their jobs. Many of these engineers joined the brain-drain to the United States. The “Avro group” of 32 engineers playing critical roles in Nasa’s Apollo programme, which – ironically – beat the Soviets in the race to land a man on the moon.
The aircraft became a source of national pride for many Canadians (Credit: Avro Canada/Canada Aviation and Space Museum)
Ken Barnes was a senior draftsman on the project to build the revolutionary plane when he heard the bad news. Like many Canadians, Barnes was appalled by the decision to cancel the Avro Arrow. When Barnes was told to destroy the blueprints, he hid them in his basement. There the designs stayed until Barnes’s nephew discovered them after his death. It was a revelation that made headlines across Canada last year and fuelled hopes of another miracle, that perhaps one of the planes had somehow escaped destruction.
If the mass layoffs was an act of brinkmanship by the company, then it didn’t work. In a move which shocked Canada, the cutting up of the Arrow prototypes took place in front of the silent factory. The moment was captured in a grainy black-and-white photograph which continues to haunt Canada. Three years later the Avro Aircraft company would be gone, with a total loss of around 50,000 jobs.
“You won’t find many other countries that are so invested in an aircraft that never saw service,” says Erin Gregory, curator of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. “For Canadians, there is a sense of missed opportunities. Then there’s the idea that we are a vast country with a small population and an innovative spirit that punches above its weight in many areas and the Arrow was one of those. It was the height of aviation technology, and Avro was the high-tech aviation firm in Canada. Yet, their government foils them.”
There is an old Canadian joke that says the best thing that happened to America was the cancellation of the Arrow
“Canadians aren’t sitting around every night reliving the glory days of the Arrow,” says Amy Shira Teitel, a Canadian spaceflight historian and author of Fighting for Space: Two Pilots and Their Historic Battle for Female Spaceflight. “But Canada is obsessed with Canadiana, and the Arrow was revolutionary. It was a Mach 2 jet on par with the United States, and it was Canadian, made in Malton, Ontario. Then there was the weird decision to cancel it with no warning: ‘We failed to sell the plane to either Britain or the United States, so let’s destroy it and pretend it never happened.’”
There is an old Canadian joke that says the best thing that happened to America was the cancellation of the Arrow. Many Canadians did make the next step and instinctively blame their southern ‘frenemy’ for the failure of the programme.
But the controversy and conspiracy theories hid a critical truth. “Hi-tech defence projects are very expensive,” says Joe Coles, publisher of Hush-Kit, an aviation blog. “Without a large guaranteed order from your nation, they are usually prohibitively so.”
“By the time it was cancelled, the cost of the programme had ballooned to an astonishing Canadian $250m,” says Gregory. “That was an extraordinary amount of money in the 1950s, especially for a country as small as Canada. Given that millions of more dollars were still needed, it was a pretty easy cut to make.”
The CF-100 gave Avro’s designer valuable experience in building a high-performance jet aircraft (Credit: Avro Canada/Canada Aviation and Space Museum)
The Arrow was a reflection of the unique company that built it. Avro Aircraft was born of the British strategy of using “shadow factories” to disperse the production of planes, tanks and other armaments in the build-up to World War Two. During the war, the factory produced iconic aircraft such as the Hawker Hurricane and the Lancaster bomber. With victory approaching, the Canadian government minister CD Howe believed it was of “utmost importance” to use this opportunity to establish a Canadian aircraft industry. Avro’s engineers rose to the challenge. In 1949 came the C-102 Jetliner, Canada’s first jet plane, North America’s first passenger jet, and the world’s second jet airliner. One year later they rolled out Canada’s first – and so far, only mass-produced – jet fighter, the CF-100 Canuck. Though the company shared a name with the makers of the Lancaster bomber, it was in fact a subsidiary of Hawker.
Avro’s hush-hush Special Project Group pioneered flying saucer-shaped vertical take-off and landing aircraft like the Avrocar. Another group was working on the Space Threshold Vehicle to take a man to the edge of space and back. A feasibility study for a supersonic transatlantic airliner was ready by the time of the Arrow’s cancellation.
“Avro was both incredible in its achievements and central to the nation’s aspirations to become an aeronautical powerhouse,” says Randall Wakelam, a history professor at the Royal Military College of Canada. “The government intended to take Canada from being a small-time assembler of aircraft designed in the UK or US to become an international-level manufacturer the equal of other nations.”
Ottawa’s decisions didn’t always help the manufacturer. In 1950 the Cold War turned hot when North Korea invaded the South. CD Howe demanded that Avro cancel the Jetliner project and prioritise the manufacture of the Canuck. In a foreshadowing of the fate of the Arrow, American interest in manufacturing the plane was ignored and workers cut up the Jetliner prototype.
The Arrow was so advanced that Canada didn’t have all the facilities for testing it
Then in 1954, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) published requirements for a new fighter. The Arrow won, but quickly grew into a complex project that pushed forward the edge of scientific knowledge, Avro’s ability to manage it and the government’s ability to afford it. The interceptor had to be able to fly and fire at 50,000ft and speeds over Mach 1.5. It had to be to operate in the harsh conditions of the Arctic and be able to fly the long distances that this required.
To achieve these goals, the Avro engineers created the first non-experimental fly-by-wire control system (a system that replaces the conventional manual flight controls of an aircraft with a computer-controlled system) in an aircraft and a navigational computer that used real-time telemetry. They used new materials in its airframe, and, at a sister company, designed and built the new powerful, lightweight, supersonic Iroquois engine. To make the most of its capabilities, the interceptor spawned a new weapons programme called Astra (nicknamed “Astronomically Expensive”), and a new missile.
The Arrow was so advanced that Canada didn’t have all the facilities for testing it. Instead, the engineers had to use facilities in the USA such as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) supersonic research centre at Langley Park, Virginia. The Canadians and their aircraft impressed their American colleagues – a calling card that had lasting consequences for the future of humanity. In 1958 NACA became Nasa.
“The Arrow was an extremely high-performance, hi-tech fighter,” says Coles. “Its designers had made very few compromises to keep its costs down, and it was very much the ‘gold-plated’ solution.”
The aircraft’s designers had had to make few compromises, which made the aircraft both cutting edge and expensive (Credit: Avro Canada/Canada Aviation and Space Museum)
The Arrow achieved another first. It was the first time that engineers built prototypes of such a sophisticated aircraft using production tooling rather than handmade by engineers. This process meant that it was a mere 28 months from the first drawing of the Arrow to its rollout, and by February 1959 the production line was up and running.
By the time the loudspeaker crackled into life on Black Friday, there were five flying prototypes. There was another fitted with an Iroquois engine nearly ready to fly and another four in various states of assembly. In the factory were the majority of parts for the production aircraft. Proposals for a Mach 3 and a hypersonic – Mach 5 – version of the Arrow were on the drawing board, as was a “zero-length launch Arrow”, which would blast into the air from a raised launch pad like Thunderbird 1 from the science fiction television series.
“Problems had been brewing, if not publicly discussed, for many months before Diefenbaker made his decision,” says Wakelam. “The issue of whether to keep going or abandon the project was caught in the warp and weft not only of national pride and technological advancement but also in the economics of jobs, limited federal budgets, scarce markets and shifting threats.”
A huge contingent of the engineers who made up Nasa’s Space Task Group were from Avro, and they laid the foundation for Nasa’s Spaceflight Center – Amy Shira Teital
As with the Jetliner, Diefenbaker’s government ordered all the prototypes broken up despite the offers from the United States to buy all the completed planes, as well a request from Britain to use some of the aircraft for research into supersonic flight The rest of the Arrow project fared no better. The government had cancelled the Astra system already. One Iroquois engine was given to Britain to help its supersonic airliner project. Yet, the government didn’t pursue the project, despite commercial interest.
However, Nasa didn’t waste any time. They first approached Avro’s engineers within hours of the project’s cancellation. The 32 men they chose went to work on projects like Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Jim Chamberlain, ex-chief of technical design, led the Gemini mission and was one of the leading advocates for the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR). Owen Maynard, a former senior stress engineer, was the man most responsible for the design of the Lunar Module.
By the time the project was cancelled, five flyable prototypes had been built (Credit: Avro Canada/Canada Aviation and Space Museum)
A huge contingent of the engineers who made up Nasa’s Space Task Group were from Avro, and they laid the foundation for Nasa’s Spaceflight Center,” says Amy Shira Teitel. “Canadians are way too modest to say I did it, but a lot of the people who made the critical decisions in the Apollo-era were Canadian.
“I think getting to the Moon without those brains would have looked very different.”
Apollo wasn’t the end of their mission either. The Avro group went onto influence the Space Shuttle programme and the International Space Station.
Not long after “Black Friday”, rumours started to spread that an Arrows had been smuggled to safety by one of the test pilots. By comparing the first pictures of the destruction of the prototypes outside of the Avro factory with later ones, it appeared that prototype RL-202 had disappeared. There were witnesses as well. Canadian writer, June Callwood, who lived near the plant, claimed to hear an Arrow taking off the day of its cancellation. Then in 1968, Air Marshall Wilfred Curtis, a wartime hero and the man in charge of the Arrow programme refused to answer when asked in an interview if an Arrow had been smuggled to safety.
Draughtsman Ken Barnes wasn’t the only Avro employee who smuggled out a piece of the Avro or priceless document on “Black Friday”
Fuelled by the discovery of ejector seats from the Arrow and other artefacts in the United Kingdom, “Arrowheads” started to wonder if one of the jets had been smuggled to safety in the United Kingdom. These discoveries, in turn, prompted according to one report, an eyewitness to recount an incident at an RAF base in Kent in the 1960s when a white delta-wing aircraft with no national markings or registration landed. Was it the Arrow?
Draughtsman Ken Barnes wasn’t the only Avro employee who smuggled out a piece of the Avro or priceless document on “Black Friday” – and, perhaps, rather than seeing these artefacts as evidence that there is a lost Arrow waiting to be found, together they add up to a missing aircraft.
After losing his job, Barnes eventually ended up on the Canadian team which designed the robotic arm for Nasa’s Space Shuttle.
“In the end, despite what some may say, it wasn’t US pressure that killed the Arrow,” says Coles. “It was the sobering budgetary requirements of this Canadian super-fighter.”
The Arrow was as advanced as any fighter aircraft built by any other nation at the time (Credit: Avro Canada/Canada Aviation and Space Museum)
Yet, Avro Aircraft may have faced the same fate even if the Arrow programme had continued. “You just need to think about the vast number of aircraft you see at the ‘boneyard’ in Pima, Arizona,” says Gregory. “All those American firms were churning out new designs all through the Cold War because they were fed contracts by the government. The United States can afford that, but I just don’t know what contract the Canadian government could have given to Avro to have carried the company into 60s, 70s and 80s.”
Yet, one element of Canada’s war time vision has been turned into reality. “Canada has the fifth largest aerospace industry in the world,” Gregory adds.