OTTAWA — The cold war was getting hotter every week in the late 1950s. The western world was ramping up production of some of the most lethal weapons and delivery systems ever created. With the USA and Great Britain competing with the Soviet Union (Russia) in a technological war, Canada was hardly expected to create what many say was the most advanced fighter jet in the world.
The A.V. Row Company’s Avro Arrow was the result and has since been called the best fighter bomber or its day, matching or even bettering test results of the current F-35.
Fred Smyth headed up the project by gathering the best scientists and aeronautical engineers in Canada into a team that ended up making history. The official name was the CF 105.
Avro had already built the CF 100 Constellation, a jetliner that had advanced the future of jet travel as both a bomber platform in war as well as a passenger liner in peace. Britain had purchased a number of them, however, a mid-air collision of Scandinavian Airlines System’s Douglas DC-6 and an Avro Aircraft in 1948, resulted in 39 lives lost. This highly publicized crash caused Britain to rethink its dealings with the A.V. Row Company. Many other countries followed suit, putting the company in dire straights.
But designers had already begun work on the Arrow and research and development continued. The USA was looking for a replacement for its aging jet crafts and Canada, it appeared, had the inside track for selling 700 Avro Arrows to the States. That, along with a substantial number of Arrows ordered by Britain with other countries lining up.
The Korean War showed the western alliances need for a counter to the Russian built MIG jet fighter and Canada’s A.V. Row had the answer in the Arrow.
But unfortunate cancellations of major parts, including its original Rolls-Royce jet engines, forced Avro to seek another manufacturer, which they found with Pratt and Whitney, but it too was shelved after unimpressive test flights.
That forced Avro designers to start work on its own engine which they called the Iroquois. It was an immediate success, expanding the range, speed, and fuel consumption dramatically. It was a perfect marriage of technology.
The first test model rolled out of the hanger in 1959 to be flown by a carefully selected flight team of test pilots including two Polish Airforce pilots who took it for a 35-minute spin, doing maneuvers impossible to accomplish with its competitors.
It was big, at 51.4 ft. It was beautiful, shining white on the tarmac. It was faster than anything in the sky, tough as nails and it was all-Canadian.
Five test Arrows were built and three were flown for military buyers to see the Arrow make its long-awaited debut and take wing for the first time. It was impressive indeed. Large by most fighter-bomber standards, it was a delta wing design and could carry a heavy payload as well as rockets fired from under its wings if necessary. But the biggest advantage was its speed. While reaching the sound barrier was big news with other manufacturers at that time, the Arrow was easily capable of reaching just shy of Mach 2, twice the speed of sound.
So what went wrong? Looking back, it seemed to have been a perfect storm of politics, production delays, cost overages and the advent of missiles and long-range rockets. Some military strategists even claimed the Avro Arrow was obsolete before it was even to be sent into full production.
Louis St. Laurent was the Liberal Prime Minister when the Arrow project began and supported its development, ordering 37 Arrows equipped with Iroquois engines at a cost of $8-$10 million each.
The Conservatives won the 1957 election and things changed for the Arrow. John Diefenbaker was the new man in charge. The fiscal promises he made during his campaign included tightening the belt on military spending. By the end of 1959, it was all over.
Problems with the engine orders and other important supplier cancellations delayed the completion of the Arrow significantly and by 1959, when the Arrow made its official debut, it was already deemed obsolete by important military brass in Britain and the USA. After the launch of Sputnik, it was thought the days of the bomber were over.
War had changed with the advent of the ballistic rockets, capable of delivering multiple nuclear warheads and fly faster than any bomber. The Arrow was designed to counter Russian long-distance bombers from over the North Pole or across the Atlantic. Keeping up with a possible volley of armed rockets would require speeds beyond even the Arrow’s capabilities. The future was surface to air missiles.
With this in mind, Diefenbaker cancelled Canada’s order and pulled development support from the project and on February 20th, 1959, 13,000 Avro employees lost their jobs as well as all the creative designs and innovative tooling created to build this unique aircraft. The US and Britain followed by cancelling their orders.
On orders from Ottawa, all five prototypes were cut up for scrap and sold to a Hamilton scrap dealer for 6.5 cents a pound. In total there were 67,000 pounds of scrap in all which brought in $4,255.
Britain still wanted to buy two Arrows to study its advances for their own program, but Canada refused to sell and scrapped every last one built.
But why were the advances in technology and design ordered to be destroyed as well? That has been a lingering question for 61-years since the world’s most advanced fighter-bomber was unceremoniously scrapped in a Hamilton scrap yard.
Years later, former Conservative federal minister Davis Rosen spoke of the decision to scrap the Arrow.
“It’s not something, in my view, one can be dogmatic about,” Rosen said in an interview. “Regrettably, it was the right decision at the time. I thought so then, and I think so now.”
The Americans offered Canada its new fighter, the Voodoo, plus its new Bomarc missile system in compensation at a cost much more palatable to the Conservatives. The Voodoo was a much inferior aircraft in many ways, including its distinctive stubby wings so it could be deployed from an aircraft carrier.
Fortunately, some of the advanced design team disobeyed orders and kept blueprints and other research and testing materials hidden. With these papers, scientific and mechanical knowledge of the Arrow program, it was possible to resurrect the mighty Arrow.
It was even tabled at the war department that a new generation Arrow was possible at a fraction of the cost of those CF35’s. What more, it would outperform the stealthy CF35 in almost every test.
When current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau eventually cancelled the F-35 order, rather than go back to the Arrow, Canada chose to buy used F-18’s from Australia instead.
How good was the Avro Arrow?
Canada had ordered what they called the 5th generation of CF35 Lightning at a cost of around $200 million each. Also on the table was a new, modernized version of the Avro Arrow using the original design as a base but expanding on it with today’s technology.
It was a gutsy plan, but the results of direct paper comparisons made between the pending CF 35 and a modernized Arrow2, showed just how good the original Avro Arrow was and still can be.
In comparative studies of both planes, the 1959 Avro Arrow plus, or SuperArrow, and the 2019 CF 35 are startling.
The Arrow could fly twice the distance of a CF35 without refueling, could fly at twice the speed of sound, and at 50,000 ft. or better. And it could carry a much bigger payload.
One historian called the cancellation of the Avro Arrow an act of political stupidity, while others point out that the cost of the project would have completely drained any funding for the Army and Navy for up to five years.
According to retired general A. McKenzie, “After 60-years, the Avro Arrow would still exceed today’s standards.”
Paul Hillier, Liberal Defence Minister said at the time, “We could have worked out something regarding the Arrow.” But it never was, and arguably the best warplane of 1959 and 2019 never made it to production.
A non-working replica of the Avro Arrow is now in a museum in Ottawa after being built as a prop for a movie about the famous cold war Canadian warplane. An actual working Iroquois engine is also in a museum after being located years after the project was cancelled and all its parts ordered destroyed.