The Avro Arrow

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It could be argued that the Avro Arrow is the most famous aircraft in Canadian history. It is famous not only for the fact it was one of the most advanced aircraft of its time, but also for the unceremonious end to the Avro program, which moved the aircraft into legend.

Today, I am looking at the famous Avro Arrow.

By the 1950s, the Cold War was growing as a perceived threat to North America. There was a concern that Soviet bombers, armed with nuclear warheads, could travel to North America over the Canadian Arctic, with some experts stating such an attack could come as early as 1954.

In order to deal with this perceived threat, the Royal Canadian Air Force commissioned the Avro company to design and build a new aircraft, which would be an all-weather nuclear interceptor that could fly higher and faster than other aircraft, the Avro Arrow.

Avro Canada had been created in 1945 as a subsidiary of the Hawker Siddeley Group. Initially, the company handled repair and maintenance work for aircraft at the airport that would become the Toronto Pearson International Airport. One year later, the company designed Canada’s first jet fighter for the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Avro CF-100 Canuck all-weather interceptor. It would take years for the aircraft to enter service, which it did in 1953 and it would continue to serve a role in the Canadian military until 1981.

Gaining the contract to build the Arrow, Avro quickly expanded and by 1957, the company was employing 20,000 people. This made it one of the largest companies in Canada, and one of the most respected.

On Sept. 30, 1953, the company would purchase a jet plant at Malton, Ontario for $17.5 million in order to become the first Canadian company to build a complete aircraft from airframe to jet engines in its own factories.

An Avro spokesperson would state quote:

“Never before has a Canadian company been capable of building a plane from top to bottom. We have always had to buy various parts for the aircraft. Now we can design and put one together on our own hook.”

Leading the project would be Avro president Crawford Gordon Jr., James C. Floyd, who was the first non-American to win the Wright Brothers Medal for his work on jet technology. There was also Janusz Zurakowski, a pilot from Poland who served during the Battle of Britain and would have the honour of flying the first Arrow.

The project was massive, with the plane weighing in at 20,000 kilograms, with a 15.2 wingspan. It also had the first computerized flight control and weapons system in the world, and it was faster than any other jet of its type, able to hit twice the speed of sound at 53,000 feet.

The electronic firing system contract would be awarded to the Radio Corporation of America and there was the plan to produce the Arrow, called the CF-105 in Britain under a licence with the Royal Air Force.

The timetable for the project, which began in 1953, was short and instead of having a small number of prototypes hand built and flown to test for problems, the production line was set up first and several planes were built as production models. Any changes would be incorporated into the design while testing continued, and full production would start immediately once the testing was finished.

As news reports of the new aircraft started to hit newspapers, there was speculation that the aircraft would have no pilot due to the speeds it would reach. The Regina Leader-Post would report on Sept. 16, 1955, quote:

“At 1,500 miles an hour, a plane is approaching the heat barrier in which ordinary metals such as steel tend to give way. The heat is caused by friction between air and aircraft. It is believed the pilot will have little to do than take it off and land it, and even this may be done automatically.”

In order to deal with the heat created by the heat barrier, the Arrow carried enough refrigeration to turn out 23 tons of ice every day. It would also contain 17 kilometres of wiring and its control mechanism was powerful enough to lift six elephants standing in an elevator.

In order to test the plane nine models of one-eighth size were launched on rockets over Lake Ontario, and two others over the Atlantic Ocean. These models flew at Mach 1.7 and were intentionally crashed into the water.

Around the time tests were beginning, there was worry that funding would be cut by the government. The government had nearly lost $60 million that it had invested in two post-Korean defence projects, which included the Avro Arrow program, and it was drastic government action that prevented the failure of the two projects and the money already invested.

One of the first tests took place on Aug. 25, 1955, when a miniature was mounted on the nose of a Nike anti-aircraft missile and sent to supersonic speeds to 24 kilometres in the air and then sent back down after it was released from the missile. At the same time, another model was mounted in a wind tunnel in Buffalo and flown at speeds equaling 1,600 kilometres an hour.

This method of testing the plane also had risks, which meant a massive testing program was needed to mitigate the risks. By the middle of 1954, wind tunnel work began on the plane, as well as computer simulation studies.

The experiments showed that only a small number of design changes were needed, and most of those changes were in positioning and profile of the wings.

In October of 1954, it was announced that the new Avro Arrow would be ready for output by 1956 according to R.K. Anderson in speaking with an international meeting of 250 scientists, engineers and technicians. While he did not state it was the Arrow, most interpreted it to be so.

In February 1956, a full-scale wooden mock-up was created, and the Royal Canadian Air Force soon demanded changes, including changes to the fire control system.

All of this work came to fruition when on Oct. 4, 1957, the Avro Arrow was unveiled in front of 12,000 to 13,000 people at the Avro plant.

Ian Austen, a journalist in attendance would state quote:

“It’s 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.”

Of course, what a lot of people didn’t know was that the plane was literally just painted and one stenographer at the unveiling found that the paint was still wet on the jet.

Air Vice Marshall Hugh Campbell would say quote:

“The Arrow, including its missiles, flight trail and fire control systems, we believe will become a very important component of North American air defence.”

One concern was raised about the plane on the first day and that was the noise it would generate. Finding a base for the planes would be difficult considering that anyone living within three to four kilometres of the plane taking off would find it quite bothersome. Another issue was that due to its speed, it gobbled fuel and could only fly for about 40 minutes but in that time, it could cover a distance from Toronto to Halifax.

On the first day that the plane was unveiled, there was already talk of whether or not it would still be useful. The Calgary Herald would write quote:

“Will the Arrow, which will not be in squadron service until 1961 be outdistanced soon by rockets? This is the real contest the Arrow faces. Not against Russian bombers, which she can magnificently demolish, but against the time-scale of rocket missilery which is rapidly compressing her useful fighting life.”

The same article would highlight that the program was under review, but that it would likely be safe from cuts. The article stated quote:

“It should be said, if only for the benefit of the 20,000 Canadians whose jobs depend on the project, that in the current defence economy drive the Arrow is as safe as a church.”

There was also concern over the fact that the Arrow was capable of carrying a nuclear bomb and many questioned whether or not Canada should be involved in building bombers. The Ottawa Citizen’s headline would highlight this stating quote:

“Avro’s new jet is platform for launching of H-Bombs”

Zurakowski, the man who would fly her on the first flight, would say quote:

“She’ll do. Easy to fly. She will be the easiest flying plane ever built.”

With the plane unveiled, it now fell to Zurakowski to fly it for the first time. On March 25, 1958, at 9:53 a.m., the plane took flight and demonstrated excellent handling.

The Windsor Star would write quote:

“Today’s flight relieved months of tension for Avro designers and engineers. The Arrow snapped a hydraulic line Saturday minutes before it was scheduled to take off. It took most of Monday to repair and inspect the plane.”

Zurakowski would simply say quote:

“It’s a beauty.”

Through the next 12 months, this first version of the Avro Arrow would fly 66 times. On the plane’s third flight it went supersonic, and on its seventh flight it broke 1,600 km/h at 50,000 feet while climbing. A top speed of Mach 1.98 was reached but that was not the limit of what it was capable of.

A Mark 2 was in development at the time, but it would never fly.

As it turned out, that flight would be the high point for the arrow, and it would all be downhill from there. In fact, the end would begin only a week later, but I’ll get to that.

Changes were afoot in Canada when in June 1957, Louis St. Laurent and the Liberals lost to the charismatic John Diefenbaker and the Progressive Conservatives, ending 22 years of Liberal rule dating back to 1935.

Diefenbaker had made cutbacks to federal spending a major part of his campaign, and now that he was in power with a minority government, he would make good on that.

The Avro Arrow program was not cheap, costing $400 million, or $3.7 billion today and it was diverting huge funds from the air force. There were other issues, Lt. General Guy Simonds felt that the technology used in the Arrow was already outdated, and Diefenbaker did not get along with Crawford Gordon Jr. Diefenbaker did not drink, or did so very rarely, while Gordon was known to enjoy smoking and drinking. The two men would often argue and never saw eye to eye.

Another problem came from the Soviets themselves. The very day that the Avro Arrow was unveiled, Sputnik was launched into orbit. With the first human-made satellite, the focus on nuclear weapons moved from the air into space, and the idea of piloted bombers became less a concern compared to intercontinental ballistic missiles. If the Avro Arrow, which was designed to intercept Soviet bombers, was not going to be used for that now, what would it be used for?

The Avro Arrow remained the fastest jet in the world, but France, Sweden, Great Britain and the United States had all created planes that could fly longer and higher. The Americans were working to build their own F-106, which was similar to the Arrow. Their plane was only two to three years away from full production, the same as the Arrow was.

With the world changing fast, and the jet not being ready for combat until 1962, the writing seemed to be on the wall for the program.

There is the belief that the United States pressured Diefenbaker to cancel the Avro Arrow program as it was seen as a competitor to American companies. The truth is, that this has become a myth that has grown over the years but is likely not rooted in much fact.

The United States Air Force, in 1958 at least, had wanted to buy Arrows on behalf of the Royal Canadian Air Force to serve in continental defense. Canada refused this, believing it was an act of charity.

With pressure mounting, the company tried to find a foreign buyer for the Avro Arrow, but countries did not want to take on the project, especially with the Space Age now dawning.

On March 31, 1958, Diefenbaker won the largest majority in Canadian history and that would prove to be the beginning of the end of the Avro Arrow.

On April 22, 1958, the Defence Research Board advised the government that the Arrow would be a useful weapon system for the next several years. What many were waiting on was news on what the Russians were doing. The Ottawa Journal reported quote:

“Such a government decision could be changed overnight if intelligence reports out of Russia provided reliable information that the Soviet Union planned to halt bomber production soon.”

On Aug. 11, 1958, George Pearkes, the Minister of National Defence, requested that the Arrow program be cancelled but the Cabinet Defence Committee refused to do so. In September, Pearkes again put forward the request and included the installation of the Bomarc missile system as part of the NORAD treaty Canada had signed in 1957. The committee accepted the installation of the missile system but again refused to cancel the Avro Arrow program. The committee wanted to wait until a major review on March 31, 1959.

Even as the government was calling for the program to be cancelled, the plane was still making news for its abilities.

On Aug. 2, the second Avro Arrow took flight and remained in the air for 75 minutes. This second Arrow came along only a few weeks after the first Arrow was damaged when part of its landing gear failed upon landing.

On Aug. 27, the second Arrow hit 1,400 kilometres hour again as it was tested for instrumentation and structure, reaching 50,000 feet.

On Aug. 29, the plane blasting through the sound barrier 45,000 feet above Ottawa caused many in Ottawa to believe an explosion had occurred.

Despite these successes, the end was near for the plane, and it would come suddenly. By March 1959, it was expected six Arrows would be completed, but those planes would never take proper flight.

On Feb. 20, 1959, the project was cancelled and overnight, 14,528 people were out of work directly at Avro, while another 15,000 people in the supply chain of Avro would lose their jobs. Many were highly skilled engineers.

General Charles Foulkes, Chairman of the Canadian Chiefs of Staff would say the end came because of the high cost and lack of foreign orders, stating quote:

“Therefore because of these reasons it is now possible that we may have to abandon the policy of developing and producing special Canadian equipment for the limited requirements of the Canadian forces.”

Diefenbaker would issue a statement regarding the cancellation later in the day of Feb. 20. He would state quote:

“By the middle 1960s the missile seems likely to be the major threat and the long-range bomber relegated to supplementing the major attack by these missiles. This decision is a vivid example of the fact that a rapidly changing defence picture requires difficult decisions and the government regrets the inevitable impact of it upon production, employment and engineering work in the aircraft and related industries.”

Prime Minister Diefenbaker would add quote:

“The examination had been made in light of all information available concerning the probably nature of threats to North America in future years, the alternative means of defence and the estimated costs. The conclusion is that development of the Arrow should be terminated now.”

Diefenbaker would then make it clear that Canada would go ahead with the installation of Bomarc anti-aircraft missile systems, which would be fitted with nuclear warheads.

Avro management was completely caught off guard by the cancellation. They had known that the program was in jeopardy, but they had expected it to not come before the March review. They had hoped to fly the Arrow Mark 2 before cancellation to set new world speed and altitude records.

Crawford Gordon would state quote:

“We have received wires from the government instructing us to cease all work immediately on the Arrow and the Iroquois program at Malton and by all suppliers and subcontractors. As a result, notice of termination of employment is being given to all employees. We profoundly regret this action, but we have no alternative since the company received no prior notice of the decision and therefore, we were unable to plan any orderly adjustment.”

The announcement would also sink the stock of Avro, which fell on the Montreal Stock Exchange.

The Arrow management and employees were not the only ones caught off guard by the decision. The House of Commons was shocked as well. The Ottawa Journal would report quote:

“It was evident by the hush that fell over the House this morning that the members had not expected the pronouncement of the Arrow death sentence almost six weeks ahead of deadline.”

Liberal leader Lester B. Pearson would call for a complete review of defence policy in light of the cancellation. He would state quote:

“Where are we going from now on in this vital matter?”

An attempt was made to provide the completed Avro Arrows to the National Research Council of Canada as test aircraft, but the council refused because it did not have a ready supply of spare parts or staff and pilots trained for the plane.

By July of 1959, all of the aircraft had been cut to pieces with blowtorches, while the blueprints, models, designs and more were destroyed. The day would become known as Black Friday in the Canadian aviation industry. 

The Victoria Times Colonist reported quote:

“The remains were left on a concrete flight apron to be taken away and disposed of as scrap metal.”

Rumours swirled that Diefenbaker ordered all evidence of the plane’s merits destroyed to avoid future embarrassment, while others said it was for security reasons. Others would say that the CIA were involved in terminating the Arrow and removing any trace of it because it could outperform their own top-secret U2 spy plane.

A legend emerged that Air Marshal W.A. Curtis had spirited an Arrow away for prosperity. In 1968, he was asked if the rumour was true, and he would state quote:

“I don’t want to answer that.”

While no intact full-sized Avro Arrow has ever been found, the legend persists that there is one somewhere in Canada, hidden away. As it is 2021 and everyone involved with the program has passed away for the most part, it is likely this rumour is not true.

Diefenbaker has become the symbol of the demise of the program, especially at the time.

Blair Fraser of Macleans would write quote:

“Never, not even in June 1957, has Prime Minister Diefenbaker met the press with such well-earned glee as when he announced the discontinuance of our all-Canadian supersonic fighter aircraft, the Avro Arrow.”

Charles Lynch of the Ottawa Citizen stated quote:

“I, for one, am convinced the program would have been carried through but for Mr. Diefenbaker’s open hatred for the Avro company, which he regarded as a pork barrel operation.”

Since then, historians have come to believe that the program would have been cancelled even with the Liberals in power, as it had come along when the world was changing and that type of aircraft, for its cost, was no longer viable.

Diefenbaker would say of the program, quote:

“It was a beautiful aircraft, but I had to make, in the finality, that decision. When one’s faced with a problem like this, there is a higher source of strength. If one doesn’t have that strength, he can never bear the attacks made on him. I knew that a great industry that had been established would be weakened. But it was right to end it.”

The irony of the cost of the Avro Arrow program comes in the costs associated with its replacements. The Canadian government would buy 66 second-hand Voodoo fighters that could only go half the speed of the Arrow. The country then opted into the Bomarc program, a surface-to-air guided missile system. That system would be met with immense criticism in the 1960s with the growing anti-nuclear movement and Canada would choose to abandon its armed forces from nuclear roles, and it would shut down the Bomarc system. In the end, the cost of the Voodoo aircraft and the Bomarc purchases amounted to more than the entire cost of the Arrow program.

The cancellation of the program and the purchase of the missiles and the Voodoo fighters would hurt Diefenbaker politically, as well as the Progressive Conservatives. Even three years after the cancellation, Conservative candidates were dealing with angry Canadians, especially in southern Ontario, speaking about the loss of the Arrow.

By 1962, Diefenbaker would see his record-setting majority reduced to a minority government. One year later, his government was out of power as the Liberals were elected and would lead Canada, almost uninterrupted until 1984. By 1967, Diefenbaker was out as leader of his party and would spend the rest of his life, until his death in 1979, as a backbench Member of Parliament.

The demise of the Avro Arrow was disastrous for the company. Crawford Gordon Jr. would resign as president on July 2, 1959, and he would die from alcoholism on Jan. 26, 1967. The vice president of the company, Fred Smye, resigned in 1959. 

By the time the company closed its doors in 1962, 25,000 people had lost their jobs, with its assets sold for $15.6 million.

The greatest impact was on the future of Canada. With the program cancelled, many of those thousands of engineers went to find work elsewhere and that took them to Great Britain where they worked on the Concorde program, while others went to the United States and began to work for NASA. Chief Aerodynamicist Jim Chamberlain would take 25 engineers to NASA’s Space Task Group to become program managers, lead engineers and more on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. Eventually, 32 Avro engineers were part of the program.  

Avro arrow employees would hold reunions through the years and Paul Stephens, a producer of the future Arrow miniseries, would say quote:

“You sit there in a hotel room full of white-haired men and listen to their testimony. These are people who went on to land a man on the moon, but they said working on the Arrow was the best time of their lives. There was this spirit of enthusiasm and creativity at Avro that they never felt again. You could just tell it was like the Apple Corporation of the 1950s.”

Pieces of the Avro Arrow have turned up over the years and found their way into museums. The Canadian Air and Space Conservancy has a full-sized replica of the plane, while the Avro Museum in Calgary has a flying replica. The nose section of the original arrow with the words “cut here” written on it is on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.

In 1997, a miniseries called Arrow was released on CBC. The four-hour miniseries starred Dan Aykroyd as Crawford Gordon. The miniseries was highly acclaimed by viewers and historians and won several Gemini Awards that year. It would also spawn a Heritage Minute about the Avro Arrow.

Aykroyd would offer his own view of the program, stating quote:

“I can see why the program was cancelled. Missiles were coming in. There was pressure from the United States not to have an aerospace program in Canada. I can’t blame old Devil Dief for that. But where I do blame him is in the vindictive and vengeful way the planes were destroyed. That one or two weren’t saved is the real black horror of the story.”

In February 2004, the pilot who took the Arrow to the skies, Janusz Zurakowski, would die of a rare blood disorder at his home in Barry’s Bay, Ontario.

In September of 2017, a group called Raise the Arrow found an arrow-shaped object in Lake Ontario. The plane was recovered the next year, and it was believed that it was not one of the scale models that were built, but an earlier, smaller test plane.

On Jan. 6, 2020, CBC News announced that original blueprints of the Avro Arrow were kept by Ken Barnes, a senior draftsman. Ordered to destroy the blueprints, he put them in storage for decades instead. The blueprints were put on display at the Diefenbaker Canada Centre in the Touch the Sky: The Story of the Avro Canada. In 2021, the National Research Council of Canada digitized and released 595 Avro Arrow reports that had been stored in their rare book room.

The Avro Arrow Private Street commemorates the plane and program at the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport.

Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, The Montreal Gazette, Wikipedia, The National Post, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Regina Leader-Post, Vancouver Province, Calgary Herald, The Windsor Star, CBC, Nanaimo Daily News,

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