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The Avro Arrow Blunder

Avro Arrow
Photo: Canadian Department of National Defense

The all-Canadian Avro Arrow fighter-interceptor of the 1950s made us proud. But when the John Diefenbaker Conservative government scrapped it in early 1959, we could only hang our heads in shame. What was the Avro Arrow…how good was it…and what caused its demise?

After World War II, Canada--believe it or not--had the 4th strongest air force in the world, behind the Americans, the British, and the Russians. Ah, the good ol’ days. By 1947, the Royal Canadian Air Force was in search of a new jet fighter-interceptor made for our unique and particular needs. This was the Cold War. The Russians were a very real threat over the North Pole. This new aircraft had to perform a specialized role to defend the 4 million square miles of uninhabited land over the Northern reaches. The fighter had to have considerable range, two engines, and advanced radar. It had to be highly-armed, and have a crew of two—a pilot and a navigator. Air Marshall Wilfred Curtis of the RCAF was appointed to form a team in search of this special aircraft.

As Curtis soon discovered, neither the British nor the Americans had any such aircraft on squadron, in production or even on the drawing boards. So, Curtis recommended to the federal Liberal government lead by Louis St Laurent that the Canadians themselves should build it. And…we did build it. The contract was given to AV Roe, otherwise known as Avro, at Malton, Ontario for the air frame. Orenda, also at Malton, received the contract for the engines. The aircraft was the CF-100 Canuck, affectionately tagged “The Clunk.” But by the time it saw squadron service in 1953, it was already obsolete due to the quickly-changing times. With its straight wing, the Clunk couldn’t even reach Mach 1.

We Canadians now needed an updated fighter-interceptor, faster and more powerful with a surface ceiling of 75,000 feet and a speed of at least Mach 2, along with the other mentioned requirements, such as two-man aircrew, two engines, and advanced radar. So, the Liberal government decided that $100 million tax dollars would be set aside for this project. Once again Avro and Orenda were given the airframe and engine contracts. This was how the futuristic delta-winged CF-105 Arrow came into being. Also, the new engine would be a much more powerful one, designated as the PS-13, soon to be known as the Iroquois, a power plant that would set the aviation world on its ear.

By 1954, the Iroquois was running on its own power before the new aircraft was even ready. In 1955, the Liberals placed a contract for more Iroquois development. Later in the year, a six-engined Boeing B-47 bomber—on loan to us--complete with American crew, tested the Iroquois in flight thanks to Orenda inserting an engine frame on the rear fuselage. The crew were impressed when they throttled back their six engines and let the Iroquois, all by itself, power the bomber through the air. The Iroquois’ 20,000 pounds of thrust had more thrust than four of the American engines combined. After this test, events moved along in a rapid order…

June 10, 1957—the Conservatives led by John Diefenbaker came to power with a minority government. The first Tory government in two decades.

August 27, 1957—the Russians test-launched the world’s first ICBM—intercontinental ballistic missile.

October 4, 1957—the first Arrow—RL-201—rolled out during a major ceremony at Malton, attended by federal and provincial dignitaries and viewed by thousands. This was the first of five aircraft that were used for testing. Without a prototype, Avro had gone right into to production, saving the taxpayers millions. Unfortunately, that same day, the Russians stole the show with another aviation first by launching Sputnik, the first space satellite. The size of a soccer ball, it circled the earth every 95 minutes. Both the space age and the missile age were now suddenly upon us, with the Russians taking the lead.

March 28, 1958—the first flight of the CF-105 Avro Arrow with the American-built Pratt & Whitney engines.

March 31, 1958—Diefenbaker’s Conservatives gained a whopping majority government in the federal election where they took 206 of 265 seats, a record victory at that time.

November 11, 1958—test pilot Spud Potocki took the Arrow (still with the American engines) to Mach 1.98 during a one-hour flight, the fastest the aircraft had flown in its 70 hours of testing to date.

February, 1959—two of the powerful Iroquois engines were finally being fitted into Arrow RL-206 Mark II, the newest version of the Arrow, to be ready for testing in a few weeks. The goal was to break the world speed record for aircraft at that time which was just over Mach 2, set by an American-built Lockheed C-104 Starfighter.

February 20, 1959—the day known as “Black Friday,” John Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons and announced the sudden and severe cancelation of the Arrow and Iroquois programs, thus sending 15,000 Avro employees out of work, along with another 15,000 technicians employed by 2,500 subcontractors in the US and Canada. Overnight, 30,000 were without jobs.

April, 1959—came the ultimate indignity. Upon orders from the paper-pushing aristocrats in Ottawa, the five completed Arrows plus the aircraft on the assembly line in the Avro hangar were torched to pieces by acetylene torches, then shipped down the QEW to Waxman’s in Hamilton where these awesome, ahead-of-their-time aircraft were melted down to make something that Canadians could probably be a lot more proud of, like pop-up toasters.

Only a few of the best technicians and engineers wound up in places like Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas and the US Space Program where they helped to put the first men on the moon a few years later. Meanwhile, AV Roe struggled on with a depleted staff building a top secret Vertical Landing and Take-off aircraft (basically a flying saucer) for the US Army. I guess nobody told them the British were working on the Harrier, a versatile aircraft still in use today. Avro also tried aluminum boat building. Wow! Now that’s Canadian for yuh, eh? Both projects fizzled out. The once-proud AV Roe Canada finally had to close its doors in 1962. Orenda engines still survives today, without any Iroquois engines, which were also melted down at the same time the Arrow was.

So, why was the Arrow scrapped? Was it money? Was it politics? Was it military reasons? Was it the missile and space age suddenly thrust upon the 1950s? Was it the Americans?

Let’s look at money. The original estimate for Arrow development was placed at $100 million by CD Howe, the Liberal Minister of Defense Production. By 1955, the feds projected $300 million in total development costs, plus another $1.5 billion to equip 15 RCAF squadrons with Arrows by the early 1960s. By the time Black Friday hit, $335 million had already been spent on the Arrow, with an additional $87 million for the development of the Iroquois. If the escalating costs for the Arrow seemed such a factor to the newly-elected Conservatives, they should have thought the whole thing through before they scrapped the project. First, it cost $25 million to torch and haul the Arrow away, then eventually over $500 million to replace the Arrow with American-built fighters (C-104s and F-101 Voodoos), and finally $270 million to purchase the Boeing Bomarc missile from the Americans in the early 1960s to defend our North. Of the 220 C-104s we received, half of them crashed, leading them to be nicknamed, “The Widowmaker.” The Voodoo, on the other hand, was too slow. And the Bomarc was an American dud that even they dropped soon after they had sold it to us. And we went ahead and kept it for several years! By the early 1960s it appeared that it cost the taxpayer more money to scrap the Arrow than it was to keep it.

Also, long before Black Friday, the French government had signed an agreement with our government for the purchase of 100 Iroquois engines. But the fine print stated that if the engines were not delivered, the French would still be paid. Oops! One hundred engines at $250,000 each meant $25 million of our tax money going to the French for a product they didn’t receive.

Then comes politics…the Diefenbaker Tories made a statement in late-1958 that they would give the House of Commons a review of the Arrow and Iroquois programs by March, 1959. AV Roe saw this as an opportunity and took matters into their own hands. They wanted that world speed record held by the Americans and they knew they had a good shot at it. I don’t think the Feds wanted that test flight to happen. I believe they had to scrap the Arrow before the originally-promised March review date because if the Arrow Mark II did break the record, the Tories would look awfully foolish canceling an aircraft that had just broken the world speed record.

One of the excuses that the Tory government used for scrapping the Arrow was that they couldn’t sell it to the Americans or other NATO countries. The Tories failed to realize that the Arrow was designed for us…to defend our country…those uninhabited areas to the North.That was the original plan. The Americans wouldn’t buy any fighter from us, not when they had so many of their own. And the NATO countries, with the Russians on their doorstep, were after short-range, low-flying aircraft. They didn’t need a long-range interceptor like the Arrow. But would breaking the world speed record have changed their minds? I like what AV Roe’s chief test pilot Jan Zurakowski said after Black Friday…”No one buys a new fighter until it’s operational and on squadron.”

The Conservatives also fed us the line that the Arrow was obsolete and that un-manned missiles were the future. If it was obsolete, then why did they destroy it and not leave a trace? Then they told us it was Top Secret and shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. Huh? So, was it that good or was it obsolete?

You know, if Diefenbaker had only taken a tour of the AV Roe and Orenda plants at Malton and had seen first-hand the pride of the workforce…the hard work…that went into the truly Canadian project. But he didn’t. Pure and simple, his election mandate was cut and dried. Put a halt to the expensive government programs that the Liberals had started after World War II. Little did Diefenbaker realize that by killing the Arrow, he was killing his own political career. The Toronto-area workers formerly employed at Avro and their families spoke out at the ballot box well into the 1970s. It took two decades for the Conservatives to gain back ridings they had lost in 1962, when the next federal election came up. That time around, Diefenbaker won, but in a minority situation. Ontario did him in. After that, Dief wasn’t taken too seriously on the federal scene. No fan of John Diefenbaker, my dad summed him up best by calling him an old blowhard.

Before we pile too much blame on the Conservatives, let’s take a good look at the St Laurent Liberals. They were just as ill-advised when they did away with the twin-engine Avro C-102 Jetliner, an airplane of many firsts. In 1949, it was the first jet transport plane built and flown in North America. It was the first jet transport to fly over 500 miles per hour, and it was the first jet to carry mail, when it made a run from Toronto to New York City. Like the Tories with the Arrow, the Liberals didn’t know what they had with the C-102. In 1956, they destroyed the one and only prototype. The reason…the CF-100 Canuck was having too many production problems that needed Avro’s attention.

Since researching for my novel on the Arrow more than twenty years ago, I’ve met some people in the Toronto area who had worked at AV Roe in the 1950s, when the world stood up and took notice of us. I spoke to two technicians recently. One connected with the Arrow. The other with Orenda, and the Iroquois engine. Both are long retired and getting up there in age. But their memories are intact. They’re proud of what they had accomplished so long ago, as were the other AV Roe people I’ve spoken to over the years. They all have one thing in common…you can still see the burning in their eyes when the name John Diefenbaker is mentioned.


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