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The Avro Arrow: A Jet Decades Ahead of Its Time

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In October 1957, the A.V. Roe Canada Company (Avro) in Toronto wheeled a new jet aircraft out of its hanger. There were cheers of admiration for this sleek delta-wing plane that could fly faster than the supersonic Concorde of a dozen years later.

Journalist Ian Austen was at the unveiling. He wrote that “Its swept-back delta wings and early electronic flight controls gave it the look of tomorrow, as did its blinding white, matte black, and Day-Glo orange paint.” It was Canada’s statement that it intended to become an aviation superpower.

Too bad about the politics.

Not the real thing; this is a model of the Arrow manipulated to simulate flight.

Not the real thing; this is a model of the Arrow manipulated to simulate flight.

Wartime Production

During World War Two, Canadian companies built many of the warplanes that the Allies needed to carry the fight to Germany. In all, Canada delivered 16,418 aircraft to the Allies, including such iconic machines as the Avro Lancaster and the Hawker Hurricane.

The industry employed 116,000 people, of whom 30,000 were women.

At the end of the war, Canada had a huge pool of highly skilled aviation workers. Aeronautical engineers saw the opportunity to build planes of their own design rather than just assemble kits of someone else’s creation.

As BBC Future notes “Avro Aircraft, the Canadian airplane maker created after the war, was the company that would deliver their dream.”

Cold War Threat

During the early 1950s, the Soviet Union was growing more and more belligerent and there were worries its bombers might attack North America from across the Canadian Arctic.

So, the top brass of the Royal Canadian Air Force went to Avro and said “build us something that will take out those Russkie bombers before they reached their targets.

The Soviet Tu-95 Bear is what the Arrow was designed to intercept.

The Soviet Tu-95 Bear is what the Arrow was designed to intercept.

The Canadian Encyclopedia describes what the engineers produced: “Weighing about 20,000 kg when empty, with a 15.2 m wingspan, the jet was, as journalist David Wilson has written, “form sublimely married to function.” It boasted the world’s first computerized flight control and weapons system. Faster than any jet in its class, the Arrow would travel nearly twice the speed of sound at an altitude of 53,000 feet.”

The plane was so advanced that Canada did not have facilities for pre-flight testing of components. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in Langley, Virginia was enlisted to help; American engineers were astonished at plane’s capabilities.

As flight testing began, the aircraft broke four speed records and those in the know about military hardware were impressed; an upgraded version of the plane that was on the drawing boards promised even more astounding performance.

Black Friday

In June 1957, Canadians elected a minority Progressive Conservative government. Under the leadership of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, the right-of-centre politicians embarked on a cost-cutting spree.

The Avro Arrow program was gobbling up money and among its critics it became known as the Astro, short for “astronomically expensive.” It had swallowed $250 million (about $2.2 billion in today’s money) and looked likely to swallow much more.

Canada, a small country with a population of 16 million at the time, was trying to play in the aeronautical big leagues. Defence contractors in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, did not relish the idea of Canada elbowing its way into their lucrative markets.

The same day the Arrow was unveiled, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik ushering in the space age and the threat of piloted bombers receded.

The same day the Arrow was unveiled, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik ushering in the space age and the threat of piloted bombers receded.

Crawford Gordon Jr. was the President of Avro. He was a volatile man with a fondness for alcohol and he and teetotal Prime Minister John Diefenbaker hated each other. On Friday, February 20, 1959 he addressed the workers over the loudspeaker system at the Avro factory: “That effing prick in Ottawa” has cancelled the Arrow program.

Without warning, 14,000 skilled workers were unemployed and, through the multiplier effect among suppliers, a total of 25,000 people lost their jobs.

The top engineers left Canada and many of them found jobs with NACA’s successor agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They worked on the Gemini and Apollo programs that eventually put men on the Moon.

A replica of the Arrow at the Canadian Air and Space Museum. It still doesn't look like 60-year-old technology.

A replica of the Arrow at the Canadian Air and Space Museum. It still doesn't look like 60-year-old technology.

Canada’s National Angst

The government ordered the five planes that had been built to be cut up and the blueprints to be destroyed. The total removal of all evidence of the Avro Arrow project gave oxygen to numerous conspiracy theories. A persistent one is that Diefenbaker succumbed to American pressure to remove a competitor to likes of Lockheed and Boeing.

Respected Canadian historian Jack Granatstein suggested a dark motive. He said it’s entirely possible that Diefenbaker, a man known for a vindictive streak, kneecapped the project because of his personal dislike of Crawford Gordon.

Another story that refuses to die is that as the blow torches began dismantling the Arrows one was secretly flown away in dead of night and still exists, hidden somewhere in Canada.

For many Canadians, the cancellation was a severe blow to national pride and it still stings many decades later. Why was a cutting-edge technology project demolished that could have put Canada on the map as something more than a resource-based economy? Were the country’s workers always doomed to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water (Joshua 9:21)?”

The biblical quote has been used for years to knock Canada’s economy as being stuck in economic bondage. Canadians do the low-paid grunt work of harvesting, logging, and mining. The result of their sweat labour is then sold cheaply to other countries for the value-added tasks of turning raw materials into products that are then sold back to them.

In 2012, an attempt was made to resurrect the Avro Arrow project. Canada was dithering over whether or not to buy the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. The end cost of buying the aircraft is anybody’s guess, but it would be north of $25 billion.

An Anglo-Canadian consortium pitched the idea of resurrecting the Arrow and upgrading it. One of the people involved in the project, retired Major General Lewis MacKenzie, said many aspects of the Arrow design were still ahead of anything flying at the time. The group said the rebirth and updating could be done for a little under $12 billion, but keep in mind that most government project cost estimates are notoriously creative on the low side.

In the end, the Canadian government said no thanks; the Arrow will not fly again.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker will forever be seen, probably unfairly, as a traitor to the Canadian Aerospace industry.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker will forever be seen, probably unfairly, as a traitor to the Canadian Aerospace industry.

Bonus Factoids

  • Polish born Janusz Żurakowski was the first person to fly the Avro Arrow. He escaped his home country when Germany invaded in 1939 and joined the Royal Air Force. He took part in the Battle of Britain, shooting down several German planes.
  • The A.V. Roe had a hush-hush division that worked on developing a vertical take-off-and-landing plane that was shaped like a flying saucer. The group also studied the feasibility of building a transatlantic, supersonic passenger jet.
  • In 1949, Avro built the first jet airliner in North America, the C-102; it took to the air just two weeks after the world’s first jetliner, Britain’s de havilland Comet. It carried the world’s first airmail by jet from Toronto to New York; however it never carried any fare-paying passengers. The project was cancelled because of the need to speed up production of the CF-100 Canuck, a fighter plane that was needed in the Korean War.
The C-102 Jetliner.

The C-102 Jetliner.

Sources

  • “The War Economy and Controls: Aircraft Production.” Canadian War Museum, undated.
  • “The Record-Breaking Jet which still Haunts a Country.” Mark Piesing, BBC Future, June 16, 2020.
  • “Avro Arrow.” Barry Jordan Chong, Canadian Encyclopedia, May 27, 2019.
  • “Avro Arrow Redesign Pitched as Alternative to F-35 Stealth Fighter Jets.” Canadian Press, September 10, 2012.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

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