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Canada's Top Secret

A 1961 test flight of the Avrocar
A 1961 test flight of the Avrocar (Canadian Public Domain)

On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold left the runway at Chehalis, Washington in his privately owned Piper Cub, bound for Seattle. It was a gorgeous day. The sun was shining. The sky was clear. No haze. Very little turbulence. A great day to fly. That afternoon, only a few minutes into the air, the 32-year-old Arnold caught a magnificent view of the jutting, high peaks of the Cascade Range as he continued to climb. A short time later, he levelled off at 9,000 feet.

All of a sudden, as he was flying to one side of Scenic Mt Rainier, he saw a quick flash to his left. At first, he thought it was an explosion. Then he saw nine silvery objects, resembling inverted plates, skimming across the mountain tops at incredible speed before forming up in a stationary, hovering line about five miles long. As he approached closer, Arnold determined that the machines were solid objects, metallic and circular, about a hundred feet in diameter, with no rudders or tail sections. The center of each aircraft had a shiny cupola. Then, to his amazement, the objects took off, disappearing in mere seconds.

Startled, Arnold worked out the mathematics. When the first aircraft shot past Mt Rainer, his panel clock read exactly one minute to three. When the last object drew even with the crest of nearby Mt Adams, the elapsed time was one minute and 42 seconds. Arnold dug for his area map. The peaks were 47 miles apart. Sweat began to form on his face, and it wasn’t from the bright sun. According to his calculations, the speed had to be at least 1,500 miles per hour, which computed to twice the speed of sound! Impossible!

When Arnold landed in Seattle and told his story at the airport, reporters quickly sought him out. He told the doubtful newsmen: “They flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.” Little did Arnold know he had coined a new phrase: the words “flying saucer” came into being.

From 1947-1952, there were thousands more of these mysterious Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) sightings in the United States, as well as around the world. The United States Air Force made an intensive study of nearly 5,000 such reports. They concluded that most sightings were common mistakes, such as weather balloons, solar reflections, and meteors. Only a small percentage could not be explained.

The Avrocar, Canada's flying saucer
The Avrocar, Canada's flying saucer (Canadian Public Domain)

What was Washington’s reaction to the UFOs? “Flying Saucers exist only in the imaginations of the viewers,” stated President Dwight D Eisenhower, December 16, 1954. Not so, Mr President. You and your government helped finance the building of a flying saucer, with the contract going to AV Roe at Malton, Ontario outside Toronto, right here in the Canada, to the same crown corporation who had later built the supersonic CF-105 Avro Arrow fighter interceptor. Really, folks, a flying saucer here in Canada! They called it the Avrocar. In charge of research and production for it was UFO enthusiast and Avro engineer, 31-year-old John Frost.  

In the midst of the then Cold War, Frost, in 1953, had reportedly taken a trip to West Germany to meet a German engineer who had done widespread research into the flying saucer phenomenon during World War II. The engineer claimed that his aeronautical team had built a working model that had flown inside Nazi Germany. However, following the war, both the blueprints and the saucer were deliberately destroyed as the Russian, American, and British Allies closed in. The team had since split up, half went to Russia, the other half to the US. In addition, rumors were afloat that the Russians were also building their own flying saucer.

Although the Avrocar project was Top Secret, rumors did circulate in the press about it in the 1950s. In particular, front page of the February 12, 1953 Toronto Star newspaper lit up with the headline: “Takes off straight up, report Malton Flying Saucer to do 1,500 mph.”

Known as Project Y when it began in July, 1952 inside Hangar Number Four at Malton Airport, Avro funded the program for 18 months before the feds in Ottawa shut it down. All the Frost team had to show for their efforts was $400,000 spent, a wood mockup, and no working prototype.

Headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, Look Magazine on June 14, 1955 reported:

…persistent and fairly credible rumors recur that a Canadian aircraft manufacturer, AV Roe, Canada, Ltd., has had a saucer design under development for two years. One report has it that the project was abandoned by the Canadian government because it would cost over $75 million to get a prototype flying model into the air.

John Frost, the engineer behind the Avrocar
John Frost, the engineer behind the Avrocar, 1952 (Canadian Public Domain)

The AV Roe people maintain a confusing silence about the whole thing. They can’t deny the project has been abandoned because they never announced it had begun. Our own Air Force offers ‘no comment.’ Military security and rapidly changing defense problems not only cloud many details of a project like this but also obscure whether anything comparable actually exists. But based on the current requirements of our defense effort and the demonstrated abilities of our designers, an educated guess is that a flying saucer much like this one may well be flying within the next few years…

The magazine didn’t know that the year before, in July 1954, the US Defense Department had provided $2 million for development, while Avro chipped in another $2.5 million to keep it going at Malton. In 1958, the US Army and US Air Force took joint control, and it was here that the craft was named the AZ-9 Avrocar. And it was expected to be versatile. The Army wanted it be a well-armed flying jeep, in close support with troops. The Air Force wanted a maneuverable, supersonic fighter that could fly higher than any other aircraft before it.

Once a metal mockup had been built, the US Navy arrived at Malton one night in mid-1959 and under the cloak of darkness loaded the Avrocar onto a flatbed truck. Then, while the local police closed Airport Road and the entire route to Toronto Harbour, the Americans eased the aircraft on a US-bound tugboat that sailed down the Erie Canal, along the New York inter-coastal waterway, out to the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal. Destination: NASA in California for wind-tunnel testing.  Following the tests, two working prototypes were built: one at Malton which eventually flew a total of 75 hours, and another one at California.

The results were not promising. From the first flights in late-1959, the Avrocar had massive stability problems at anything higher than five feet off the ground. Out of funds to continue after spending $7.5 million, the Americans dropped out before any modifications could be done, although Frost promised to fix whatever was needed. By then things weren’t much better for Avro since the scrapping of the CF-105 Arrow in early-1959 that put 30,000 skilled people out of work. You can read about that in my June 2013 article. The link is The last Malton test-flight for the Avrocar saucer occurred March 1961. A year later, AV Roe closed its doors for good, and with it the Avrocar “flying saucer,” the last of Avro’s aviation projects, came to an abrupt end.

Specs on the Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) AZ-9 AV Roe Avrocar were as follows:

Crew: 2 (in separate cockpits)

Diameter: 18 ft            

Height: 3 ft 6 in

Wing area: 254 sq ft

Empty weight: 3000 lb

Max takeoff weight: 5650 lb

Powerplant: 3 Continental J69 turbojet engines, producing 927 pounds of thrust


Maximum speed: 300 mph (estimated), 35 mph (actual)

Range: 995 mi (estimated), 79 mi (actual)

Service ceiling: 10,000 ft (estimated), 3 ft (actual)


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