The Avro Arrow
The story of the Avro Arrow is a distinctly Canadian tale of triumph and tragedy.
The Avro Arrow remains one of the single greatest aviation achievements in Canadian history, and represented one of the most important breakthroughs in military aircraft of the 20th century.
This brilliant aircraft led the entire world by a full generation in design, performance, missile, engine and computer technology. Nothing on earth could touch it at the time.
The US considered buying the aircraft as their own front line fighter. The Soviets managed to steal many of its secrets to eventually build their own MIG25 FoxBat fighter based on its design.
Rather than turn this remarkable aircraft into the cornerstone of the Canadian aviation industry, the Diefenbaker government decided to scrap the project instead, bringing to an inglorious end one of the proudest moments in Canadian engineering and aviation history.
The A.V. Roe Story
During the Second World War, the Victory Aircraft company of Canada built Avro Lancaster bombers for the British company A.V. Roe to help satisfy the demand for long-range bombers. By the time the war was over, the Canadian Victory Aircraft plant had built over 400 Lancasters. A.V. Roe admired the high quality of planes built in Canada, so in 1945, they bought the Victory Aircraft company.
At the time A.V. Roe Canada was in the perfect position to become a world-leader in aircraft construction. It had the experience, the plant and, best of all, easy access to materials, such as aluminum in Canada.
The company could also hire the best engineers in the world because many were available now that the war was over. Jim Floyd, one of the designers of the Lancaster, was recruited from A.V. Roe in Britain to join the fledgling Canadian aviation scene.
A.V. Roe's first project in Canada was converting its Lancaster bombers into propeller-driven commercial aircraft for passenger travel after the war. They also bought the engine research company that became the Orenda engine division. A.V. Roe was then able to combine Orenda's recently developed jet engine with Avro Aircraft's new aircraft design, the "Canuck".
The Canuck (CF-100)
The path to the Arrow started in 1946, with the Canuck, Canada's first attempt at building a fighter interceptor. It was a traditional straight-wing, heavy airplane, but it was fast for its day, with the powerful new jet engines built by Orenda.
With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, Avro concentrated on finishing the CF-100. Nicknamed "the clunk," the Canuck wasn't pretty to look at, but it was functional. Heavily armed and indestructible, it could fly in all weather.
In 1952, the Canuck became the first straight-wing fighter to manage supersonic speed, but only in a dive. The Canuck was the only aircraft to be in full production at Avro and see active service. Almost 700 planes were built and over 50 of these were flown by Belgium's air force.
The Canuck served Canada for three decades (1953-1981) at subsonic speed. It was the first military jet to be completely designed, developed and produced in Canada.
Canada during the Cold War
In the 1950's, Canada found itself between two of the most powerful countries in the world, the United States and the Soviet Union. After the Second World War ended in 1945, these two countries became bitter enemies during what became known as, the "Cold War".
The Cold War was a time of extreme tension and deteriorating relations between the governments of these two countries. The Western powers (including Canada and Britain), believed in free enterprise and democratic government. On the other side of the Iron Curtain was the Eastern bloc of countries, dominated by the Soviet Union. They enforced a brutal communist style of government on their country and the rest of the Eastern bloc.
By the mid-1950's, the existence of nuclear weapons threatened a new kind of warfare which could wipe out a city in an instant. No country was safe when the possibility of world destruction seemed so imminent. Canada was also in the direct line of fire if the Soviets were to wage war and fly over the North Pole to reach the United States. In the face of such threats, how would Canada defend its own people and independence over such a vast landscape?
Air supremacy during the Second World War had been won by extraordinary planes such as the Spitfire, Hurricane and Avro's Lancaster bomber. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), argued to the Canadian government that it needed its own aircraft to prepare itself for the next war, and that this aircraft had to be made in Canada, for Canadian conditions.
Canada's large size and weather extremes have always made defence strategy complicated. Its vast territory stretches from sea to sea to sea, and much of the north is sparsely populated with few facilities for aircraft. The temperature can also vary from 35°C in the south to -60°C in the north.
In the early 1950's, most military planes were designed to either travel at high speeds or for long distances, but not both. In Canada, the RCAF needed a plane that could both travel long distances at high speed to intercept and destroy enemy bombers coming over the North Pole. It was a demanding combination of requirements.
When the RCAF told the major aircraft companies in North America and Europe what it wanted, most aeronautical engineers said it was "Impossible!". However, A.V. Roe Canada believed it could meet the challenge. Jim Floyd, A.V. Roe's vice president of engineering, and his team decided they would design and build their own Canadian fighter-interceptor.
With Jim Floyd's inspiring words, "The Royal Canadian Air Force have asked for the 'moon', and we can do it", A.V. Roe's aeronautical designers and engineers set out to tackle the impossible. This was Canada's chance to lead the world in aircraft design and, at the same time, defend North America from the Russian threat. This super-plane, officially designated CF-105, would be called the "Arrow". So in 1952, A.V. Roe Canada began designing the most famous plane in its history.
Building the Avro Arrow
Armed with only simple calculators and primitive computers, the young, creative engineering team at Avro used a combination of art and science to come up with the Arrow's unique-looking, aerodynamically fast design. Jim Floyd remembered saying, "The Arrow will make the Canuck look like it's standing still." To most people, the triangular design of the Arrow made it look more like a spaceship than an airplane. Huge delta wings blended into the body of the plane which had no tail, just a fin, to maximize speed.
Flying supersonic had long been the dream of aircraft builders. Research in Europe and the US at the time showed that the Arrow's supersonic tail-less, delta-wing design might be radical but it would work. The Arrow was going to be one of the first planes to test this design.
Not only did Avro's aeronautical engineers have to break the generally accepted rules in designing the Arrow, they had to bend others when it came to building the aircraft. They had to find stronger and lighter-weight materials to build tougher and thinner wings. They also had to think up new methods for machining and bonding such new materials. At every stage, engineers had to ask themselves not, "Can it be done?" but "How can we do it?"
Floyd's team carefully planned and tested all structures and systems at every stage. More than 17,000 technical drawings were needed at a time when the engineers didn't have sophisticated computers to assist them.
Six Different Arrows
The first five airframes built were numbered 201 to 205. Because Avro expected the sophisticated engine and weaponry to take longer to develop than the airframe, it was planned that these five aircraft would use temporary engines for flight testing.
The sixth aircraft, #206 would incorporate changes to design based on results from testing the first five airframes. More importantly, #206 and all of the 500 to 600 planes the company expected to build after that, would be equipped with the powerful engines and sophisticated weaponry that would make the Arrow the all Canadian aircraft of the future.
What had started as "simply a new airframe" soon became a much more complicated project. Besides the airframe, there were three other important components to consider: the engine, the weapons system and the electronics to fire the weapons. It was expected that these systems would all be obtained from experienced manufacturers outside Canada. But there were problems.
Every suitable engine that Avro wanted to use was unavailable. Either the engines were "classified", or not available or their production had been discontinued. For that reason, Orenda, A.V. Roe's engine division, decided they would build a brand-new engine on their own. So until the Orenda "Iroquois" engines were ready and tested, the first five Arrows built would fly using the less powerful Pratt and Whitney J-75's from the US.
The weapons and the complicated electronic systems used to fire them suffered from the same kinds of problems. Both were difficult to get from manufacturers in other countries because of secrecy in weapon design.
Eventually, the RCAF decided that these expensive components would have to be designed and built from scratch by subcontractors. Avro knew the RCAF was taking a huge risk that could drive the costs of the Arrow up, but the RCAF insisted on only the best for its superplane.
The risks and costs of building, testing and fitting together so many critical parts made the project seem impossible at times. But as Jim Floyd said, "It was a time when we didn't believe it couldn't be done."
Avro and Orenda recruited 650 other firms, most of them Canadian, to produce almost 40,000 parts needed for the Arrow. The whole country seemed to be involved in building the Arrow. Already the biggest aviation company in Canada, Avro had become the third largest employer in the country.
The Iroquois Engine
Designing a revolutionary new airframe was challenging enough, but so was designing the engine to power it. The Arrow needed an engine that could operate at high altitudes and supersonic speeds. New materials were also needed to survive the high temperatures of supersonic friction and drag forces.
The Iroquois engine that Orenda designed for the Arrow met all these needs. It was lightweight, strong and used a new material, titanium, to replace some of the steel. It was the most powerful and fuel-efficient engine in North America at the time. The Iroquois engine combined with the sixth airframe Arrow built (#206) was expected to shatter all existing aircraft speed and altitude records.
The Clock is Ticking
Because it was a military project, the Arrow had to be carefully guarded while it was being built. Much of the work had to be done at night and behind screens to keep anyone driving by from taking photographs. Both sides in the Cold War had spies trying to obtain the other side's secrets. If any of the advanced Arrow technology leaked out to its enemies, the Canadian advantage would be lost.
At the same time, the whole program was "in the shop window," as Jim Floyd liked to say. Newspapers and media from around the world were interested in any news from the plant. In Canada, the Arrow was front page news because it was being designed and built here.
The Arrow had become a symbol of what was possible, and had captured the hearts and imagination of Canadians.
But the clock was ticking. The whole world was going supersonic. The US and Britain were racing ahead on similar but less complex supersonic aircraft projects. It was exciting to be on the leading edge, but the delays and competition worried everyone at Avro.
Roll out Day
On Oct 4, 1957, Avro was finally ready to show off the first Arrow, #201. Top-secret restrictions were lifted as a huge crowd of 12,000 people, including Avro employees, their families, RCAF representatives, government officials and the media, gathered to witness the event. Finally the excited onlookers heard the introduction they were waiting for: "The Avro Arrow, a symbol of a new era in the air for Canada...".
A truck appeared from behind the gold curtains over Avro's hangar towing the first Arrow airframe into full view. The enormous plane was immediately mobbed by the admiring crowd on the ground.
Although the Arrow was not yet ready to fly, this roll out was important to show Canadians and the world alike the futuristic plane that was going to be Canada's defensive weapon. It was a proud moment in Canada's aviation history and it was broadcast around the world.
Unfortunately, on exactly the same day, the roll out was overshadowed by the launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. This even newer air traveller stole attention that should have belonged to the Arrow.
Sputnik was a small 70 kg aluminum sphere smaller than a basketball that circled Earth every 90 minutes, transmitting radio signals back to the Soviets, proving space was finally in reach of mankind.
Even though the US was working on a similar project, the Soviet launch caught the Western world off guard. Now the possibility was raised of a different kind of war, one that didn't use piloted planes like the Arrow. Sputnik began the space race, suggesting rockets and missiles might become more important than airplanes, which raised the question, was the Arrow obsolete before it had even flown?
Not long after the roll out, the government announced to the RCAF and Avro that it would continue funding, but would reduce the number of Arrows it wanted built. Avro made efforts to sell the plane to other countries but until it proved it could fly, the Arrow couldn't be taken seriously.
The big test, "Judgement Day," came on March 25, 1958 when RCAF Test Pilot Jan Zurakowski finally got his chance to take the Arrow up for its first flight. Jan finished his cockpit check at 9:30 am, and taxied onto the newly lengthened Runway 32 at the Malton airfield. The twin Pratt & Whitney J-75's roared to full power, lifting the aircraft off the ground and effortlessly into the air using only a third of the runway.
A great threshold had been crossed, and after putting the aircraft through its basic paces, the Arrow returned to the airfield. Everyone held their breath as the aircraft roared in, flared gently over the runway, and then touched down for a successful landing. It was an extraordinary moment and not long after the Arrow rolled to a stop, Jan's exultant aircrew hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him off in triumph.
Jan later told the press that, "I have never test flown an aircraft with so few problems." At Avro, spirits soared after #20l's successful debut flight. They knew they had a winner. Hopes were confirmed a week later on April 3, 1958 when Canada officially entered the supersonic race on the aircraft's third test flight. Doors and windows rattled as the plane broke the sound barrier for the first time even with its temporary, less powerful engines.
Jan flew up to Mach 1.1, but still did not attempt the Arrow's maximum speed. He did notice that the stability of the plane improved with speed. Considering there had been no prototype aircraft to work out the bugs of design and production, the results of subsequent flight tests seemed "too good to be true," said Jim Floyd.
The problems experienced during their early test flights were fixable but the Arrow's bigger problems were in Parliament. Politicians were asking questions: was this kind of military plane really needed? Was it worth all the money it was costing?
While Avro had been concentrating on its testing program in 1957, Canada had held an election to decide who would form the next government. The Conservative Party's John Diefenbaker ("Dief") was elected prime minister because he promised to reduce government spending; the post-war years of prosperity were over.
He also believed that most Canadians wanted programs like welfare for the unemployed more than they wanted expensive military planes. Dief argued that times had changed and Canada needed a different defence strategy.
The strategy Dief chose was cooperation with the US in the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD). NORAD's plan was to use inexpensive US Bomarc missiles to reduce the number of interceptors needed. Interceptors designed especially for Canada would be less necessary.
Diefenbaker's opponents argued that the Bomarc system was unproven and that Canada still needed its own interceptors. They wondered if he understood the investment and risk that was part of high tech. The government had already reduced the number of Arrows ordered. Fewer Arrows built meant even higher costs for each plane, because of expensive research and development costs.
Avro was still determined to prove how indispensable the Arrow was. Airframe 206, the first of the improved versions of the Arrow design, was being readied to test fly with the new and more powerful Iroquois engines. This would be the first time that the Arrow and the Iroquois engines were paired together, making it an all Canadian aircraft.
Avro expected #206 to break all speed and altitude records, impress the world and maybe interest other buyers. Diefenbaker wouldn't dare cancel production then, they reasoned. The 1958 International Air Show at the CNE in September was supposed to showcase the Arrow to the world but bad weather cancelled the show.
More dark clouds followed. Dief's new government decided that same month to further reduce the number of Arrows it had ordered. It also halted the most expensive part of Avro's project, the development of the custom made weapon and firing system, in favour of a simpler, cheaper US made system.
Dief warned Avro that the Arrow had six more months before the government would conduct a final review of the whole project. Because a huge Canadian industry and so many jobs were at stake, Dief didn't want to make an unpopular decision so quickly.
On Friday, February 20, 1959, a message was received at the Avro plant. It read: "The government has carefully examined the probable need for the Arrow aircraft and Iroquois engine. The conclusion arrived at is that the development should be terminated now."
The government had not waited six months as promised to do their final review or to see how the wonder plane, Arrow #206, would perform.
Production stopped at the Avro plant. Not even a typewriter or a rivet gun could be heard as workers stood stunned, listening to Diefenbaker's decision over the radio. This time the whole Arrow program was cancelled, not just scaled back. Jim Floyd remembered feeling sick as Avro was forced to cancel the much anticipated test flight of #206.
Some Avro workers wept, some just threw down their tools and left the factory, never to return. Across Canada, about 25,000 people working in jobs that depended on the Arrow project were suddenly out of work.
The president of Avro Aircraft remembered his response to the government's message. "How do you tell people that the job they have been dedicated to for years has been cancelled? How do you tell them that the product of their minds and hands has been eliminated?" All of the employees were devastated.
Newspapers called it a national tragedy, and criticized the incredible short-sightedness of the Conservative government.
But it got worse. All six finished planes and 31 others nearing completion and all materials, drawings and even the engineering and test data were ordered destroyed soon after the cancellation. The few dejected employees still around had to watch strangers take away all their hard work.
The papers and photos were dumped into large wheeled garbage cans for shredding or burning. Some Avro employees couldn't resist saving a piece of their work, a blueprint, a photograph, a model... but they had to do it illegally.
In April of 1959, the aircraft waiting outside the hangar on "Death Row " were ordered to be cut up. This can only be described as a callous act of political vandalism. Some Avro employees tried to fight the order, but it was no use.
Another former employee recalled, "The thing that always bothered me was the way it was done, the cold, callous, deliberate way it was cancelled. We salvaged nothing. Let's face it, the Arrow was the most advanced aircraft of its day. Yet all that knowledge, all that development, years and years of study, was wiped out. Deliberately wiped out. No salvage."
Avro had requests from England, the US and Canadian sources to salvage some of the planes. The only large piece officially saved was #206's cockpit, which was needed for research.
Why the destruction? Was it standard operating procedure, or was there more to it? Why would a plane that had been called out of date still be classified secret? The Cold War was not completely over.
The government probably did not want any of the new technology to leak out to enemies. Dief might have also believed that if everything to do with the Arrow project was completely destroyed, people would forget about it more quickly. Did this happen? No, of course not. Instead, in the years since, the Arrow has become a Canadian legend.
The Avro Arrow story was adapted from the book "The Story of Avro's Arrow" by Joan Dixon and Nikolas Dixon Kostyan, by kind permission.
Rebuilding the Arrow
In the decades since the Avro Arrows last flight, Canadians have not forgotten this phenomenal plane. Different groups across the country have formed over the years to rebuild this famous plane in tribute.
A life-size model of the Arrow was built by former aircraft engineer Allan Jackson. It is now housed in the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin. Another full-scale Avro Arrow replica is on display at the Edenvale Aerodrome in Stayner, Ontario.
In 1997, a group of volunteers in Calgary, Alberta came together with the goal of preserving the A.V. Roe Canada story, and build a 60% scale piloted replica of the Avro Arrow. The work at the Avro Museum at Springbank airport is ongoing, with the aircraft (as of 2020) nearing the final stages of construction.