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Avro Arrow – R.I.P.

lookbackaIt would seem fitting to ring in black any article on the demise of the Avro Arrow. Never in the annals of Canadian aviation history has cancellation of the production of an aircraft been so keenly deplored.



June 9, 2008
By Raymond Canon

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It would seem fitting to ring in black any article on the demise of the Avro Arrow. Never in the annals of Canadian aviation history has cancellation of the production of an aircraft been so keenly deplored. Even 50 years later it is hard not to remember both the excitement that accompanied the first flight of this powerful aircraft and the agony expressed after the Canadian government axed not only the Arrow but the promising Iroquois engine that went with it.

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In all, five examples of the Arrow were built and tested. (Photos courtesy of the Toronto Aerospace Museum)

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The Arrow was a product of the Cold War that the western world first faced in 1948. It soon became obvious that Soviet bombers on their way to attack strategic targets in the U.S. would have to pass over the Canadian north. This was the ideal place to shoot them down; the problem lay in the unavailability of suitable aircraft – short-range day fighters were not the answer!

Avro Canada provided the first solution in the form of the CF-100 Canuck, a twin-engined all-weather fighter that was well suited to the requirement. It was rugged, long-ranged and subsonic (although the famous test pilot Jan Zurakowski managed to crack the sound barrier with it while doing a shallow dive at a British air show).  RCAF pilots were pleased with it and 53 of the Mark 5 version were sold to Belgium to augment the three RCAF squadrons already serving in Europe with NATO, at a time when the alliance was woefully short of all-weather fighters.

In realty the Canuck was a stopgap creation; the pièce de résistance was gradually taking shape in the Avro factory at Toronto’s Malton Airport. This was the CF-105 Arrow, also twin-engined and long-ranged but designed to go through the sound barrier with ease. Concomitant with the development of the Arrow was the engine to power it, the Iroquois,  and it is safe to say that the combination of the Arrow airframe and the Iroquois made every design board on both sides of the Iron Curtain sit up and take notice.

Roly Andrews, an engineer who worked on the Arrow project, recalls the high level of enthusiasm and confidence that permeated the entire design team. “Although the working conditions were not always the best,” he observed, “we were convinced of the capabilities of the Arrow/ Iroquois creation as we were of the Jetliner and it showed in the quality of the work being done. Nobody was more proud than we were when we watched the first aircraft being towed out of the hangar.”

The announcement that the first flight of the Arrow would be made on March 25, 1958 was greeted with great anticipation by both the public and the industry. The pilot was to be Zurakowski, already something of a legend as a test pilot. The flight went off amazingly well, with Zurakowski giving the high sign as he emerged from the cockpit.

In all, five examples (25201-05) of the Arrow were built and tested with the last one only making one flight. Since the Iroquois engine was not yet available, a pair of lower-powered Pratt & Whitneys were utilized; even with these engines the Arrow showed remarkable agility, breaking the sound barrier with ease in level flight.

There were several minor problems over the better part of a year that the five models were tested, a perfectly normal situation considering that this was a radical new design, The highest speed attained was Mach 1.96, achieved with 25202. What is not so well known is that the company had moved on to produce the first Mark II (25206). Following that would be the Mark III, designed for Mach 2+ speed.
That day never came! While 1958 may have been a banner year for Canadian aviation, the following year was the antithesis. In the spring of 1959 Ottawa announced the cancellation of the entire project, including the Iroquois. Pride turned quickly into sorrow. Although there were indications earlier that the project was in trouble at cabinet level, disbelief still prevailed.

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A full-sized model of the Avro Arrow is on permanent display at the Toronto Aerospace Museum. (Photo by Robert St. Pierre)

There were a number of arguments subsequently used to justify the cancellation of the Arrow. One was that the small population of Canada could not support the cost of the project. If so, someone was horribly negligent in not informing Sweden of this handicap. That country, with a population smaller than Canada’s, was also determined to create modern jet fighters to defend itself. Its latest accomplishment, the Saab-39 Gripen, is its fifth and is still in production for the Swedish Air Force; its qualities have resulted in it being sold to two NATO and three non-NATO countries. Sweden is justifiably proud of this accomplishment.

The Arrow, inspired as it may have been, was sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. The government of the day was obviously incapable of appreciating what its aviation sector had produced, a failure that spilled over into the also-cancelled Avro Jetliner.

Since 1958, the release of federal documents reveals the extent and nature of the opposition. Ottawa seemed more diligent at the time in creating a scenario that would justify cancelling the project rather than accepting and acting on the astounding prize that had come off the Avro design boards.
Nor did Ottawa cover itself with anything but shame by ordering the complete destruction of all five examples of the Arrow; nothing, it seems, was to remind the public how close Avro had come to making history. Ironically, 25206 managed to survive; it provided the parts that are on display at the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa.

The ultimate tragedy is that the failure of the Arrow to go into full-scale production robbed Canada of a glorious moment to shine brightly in the aviation world. It should not be forgotten that, in the same decade that the Arrow was being designed, built and tested, Avro Canada had come up with the Jetliner and the Avrocar; it was patently obvious that the design teams responsible for these products were not capable just of a lucky guess but found themselves on the leading edge of new technology that was the equal to similar teams anywhere in the world. For a nation that is beset with continual problems of self-confidence, surely the Arrow would have provided the breakthrough the country needed to leave this negativity behind.

Avro had already caught the Americans’ attention and admiration with the flight over New York City of the Jetliner, a four-engined commercial jet, a flight that even the U.S. could not rival for the better part of a decade. Add to that the promising development of the company’s flying saucer. If ever a country was poised to enter the realm of aviation greatness, it was Canada of the 1950s.

A double irony is that it was Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, a gifted orator, who had done so much to portray a new and great vision for Canada, who turned out to play the decisive role in wielding the axe on the Arrow project, the very thing that could have provided him with a concrete example of the products that would accrue from such a vision.

Mourners and any others who would like to pay tribute to this achievement may call at the Toronto Aerospace Museum at the north end of Downsview Airport where a full-sized model of the aircraft is on permanent display. This has been created and paid for over the years by the legion of
Arrow admirers. Visiting hours are from 10-4 daily. While paying your respects, please feel free to engage your mind in a flight of fancy as to what the golden age of Canadian aviation might have resembled.

Sagitta Avri (1951-1959) Resquiescat in Pace

Raymond Canon is an aviation analyst at the University of Western Ontario.