When I started to write for this website, I promised myself and you that I would never do an Avro Arrow story. Canadians, as Canadians will tell you, know all about this magnificent symbol of what might have been. But while I was looking the other way, the fiftieth anniversary of its first flight came and went and when it finally dawned on me that a half century of pride, myth, justified and unjustified anger and kookism had passed, I thought that once, just once I would put forth on this well covered subject. And I do this for all those of our members, followers and associates who are not Canadian - for all of Canada carries this magnificent aviation failure in our genetic make-up. Whether you, like me, find it all a bit over stated or even goofy, or like many, wear the memory like a scar that flares red when they watch other nations producing the great military aircraft of our day, the Avro Arrow story is as fundamental a part of who we are as the building of the National Railway, the capture of Vimy Ridge, or the racing schooner known as Bluenose. The only difference is - they all succeeded.
To those of you at the far corners of the world, the deep south, or the Spitfire skies of East Anglia, the Avro Arrow was a Canadian designed and built twin-engined, all-weather supersonic interceptor that was in the prototype and test stages of its development when the entire project was cancelled due to runaway cost overruns, strategic realignment and, as some like to say, meddling from big business and government south of the 49th parallel.
You see, the thing about the Arrow was, it was breathtakingly beautiful - perhaps, and I say this with some conviction, more beautiful than any aircraft, civilian or military, under development or operational anywhere in the world at the time. I am certain in fact that if the Arrow was a dog, a fat turd-like aircraft, an ill-proportioned aircraft, a work-a-day journeyman aircraft, we would not be so possessed by it today. But it wasn't. It was futuristic beyond our imaginations in 1958 when it first flew - sleek, lean, gigantic and so not like us. By any standards of design today, it was a stunner. It held the promise on its broad white wings that Canada would be vaulted into the future ahead of everyone.
The Avro Arrow, to be known in the Royal Canadian Air Force as the CF-105, is rolled out to much fanfare and pride at the company’s factory in Malton, Ontario near Toronto. People were stunned at the massive size of this interceptor.
A Royal Canadian Air Force Sabre fighter gives chase as the beautiful Arrow RL-201, the first prototype, flies over Ontario farmland. The interceptor would have a crew of two with the weapons systems operator riding behind the pilot in an almost fully enclosed compartment - the small window behind the pilot being his only view out. The most spectacular feature of the Arrow, its massive blade-like tail gave it such a futuristic appearance.
The whole of Canada was kept up to date with its development and construction and then its flight test regime through TV and movie news reels. No fighter today can boast capturing the imaginations of a nation - I can only think of a few aircraft that hold such power over people, and they we all know - Spitfire, Concorde, Comet, Hindenburg, Flying Fortress, Ryan.
The Arrow program was staggeringly expensive for a country of 20 million people in the midst of economic atrophy. Avro Canada, a spin-off of the great U.K. Company could not have done it without government funding and backing. The Royal Canadian Air Force was involved right from the beginning - they of course would be buying hundreds of the promising fighter. The Royal Air Force was considering them too. Then one day it was over. Rather than bore you with the details (and there are many) it was decided that the project was too rich for a Canadian government to carry and the Conservative government of the day under firebrand Saskatchewan conservative Prime Minister John George Diefenbaker pulled the plug on the whole project. Overnight. With a vengeance only “Dief the Chief” could muster. And that's the biggest wound of all.
All Canadians connected viscerally with the Arrow - it simple, graceful lines made it an obvious winner - it simply looked to even the most uninformed layman, like it was born to fly in Canada’s skies, like it was going to live up to its billing as the hottest aerial interceptor on the planet. For a young country whose airmen had made such history flying the aircraft of Great Britain or the United States, this was a matter of extreme pride. Inset: A plastic “airplane coin” of the Avro Arrow - part of a set of 200 different coins of the greatest aircraft of all time. This coin was the holy grail of young boys who collected them from Jello packages and Hostess Potato Chip bags in the early 1960s.
Now, that’s a boarding ladder! Avro technicians attend to Avro Arrow 204’s (the fourth off the line) test pilot prior to a winter test flight. The Arrow’s spindly undercart can be seen with its very distictive two wheel tandem main bogies.
In a gargantuan act of federal vandalism, the government ordered the immediate immolation of every scrap of technology associated with the project. Within just a couple of months the entire assembly line was disassembled and jigs and equipment were destroyed. But the worst of all was the immediate, almost ritualistic slaughter of the five flying prototypes by welder's torch and scrapper's blade. The beautiful, poetic symbols of Canada's new energy and technological prowess were literally dragged out doors like beautiful swans and cut to pieces. A newspaper reporter who had wind of the destruction rented an airplane and managed a few grim photos that show the massacre under way - limbs and wings and engines strewn about like body parts.
The company itself fared no differently. A huge company had grown in just a few years attracting the absolute best aeronautical engineers from Canada and the UK. Overnight the bulk of this great talent was laid-off. None had any inkling this was about to happen. None had plans. Thousands were out of work and out of luck in a matter of hours.
Lots of people lament at length that this brilliant pool of talent packed up and went south to the greatest engineering project of the century - the race to put a man on the moon. But, despite my reluctance to lament, it is true. Both NASA's star Mission Controllers, Gene Krantz in his autobiography “Failure is Not an Option" and Chris Kraft in his autobiography “Flight” mention that there was an influx of engineering talent from the Arrow Project when it was cancelled. Apparently, in Canada at the time, failure WAS an option.
So, that's the story. A beautiful story with a horrific ending. But, when looked at from a 50 year vantage point, Dief did what he had to do. He cancelled a federal works project that was bankrupting the country. The problem was, the authorities also did what they didn't have to do - they allowed the slaughter of beauty right in front of its parents - we Canadians. The government and the air force had hoped that by getting rid of the evidence, Canadians would soon forget. Big mistake.
Since the last chunk of the Avro Arrow was hauled to the smelter, Canada has not forgotten - quite the opposite. Its demise has spawned an industry of sorts - not unlike the industry centered around Roswell, New Mexico. There have been books, many, many, many books. There have been stamps, made-for-TV movies, stage plays, trash novels, and technological fantasies of such sweep that Dungeons and Dragons seems like a Victorian parlour game. No aviation artist worth a beaver pelt in Canada can escape the inevitable - painting the great white bird seemingly poised at the edge of space.
Websites abound - some downright angry, which is weird because many of these webmasters weren't even born when the Arrow was ten years in the grave. Model builders fantasize by building imaginary Mk XXX and Mk XXXVII variants in Canadian Squadron markings, Tiger Meet stripes, CIA recon black or British markings as if this great aircraft would still somehow be in production after a half century. Myths abound about technology breakthroughs like delta wings, fly-by-wire, internal weapons bays, area rule technology, all wrongly attributed to this aircraft and perpetuated by a hokey motion picture produced and acted in by Canadian Dan Akroyd.
One spectacularly beautiful homage, however, was a full size replica built in the mid 90s for a film about the Avro Arrow. It too was chopped up during the movie but was repaired and rolled out to much fanfare at the Abbotsford Air Show in 1997. This replica now resides in Alberta. Full size means big - real big - 50 foot wingspan, 78 feet long, two stories high. In 2006 another even more spectacular full-scale replica was constructed for the Toronto Aerospace Museum - both are as beautiful as the real thing and the perfect way to remember the Arrow.
One original cockpit and nose section was salvaged from the smelter and is displayed in a place of honour at the Canada Aviation Museum - with torch burns still very evident. Against a museum wall are a pair of outer wings panels with flaking day-glo paint still evident.
Another humourous phenomenon has appeared since the demise of the Arrow. It seems everyone's father or uncle or sister's husband worked at one time on the Arrow Project. There were thousands employed by or connected to the project but, like in Ottawa where everyone's mother babysat Paul Anka when he was a baby, now almost every Canadian has a relative who worked on it - such is the power of tragedy and myth.
The fantasies far outstrip any potential this aircraft ever had and it had considerable potential. That's a fact. In many ways giving it greatness it doesn't deserve destroys the greatness it does deserve. There is no doubt this aircraft deserves its reputation, but hypothesizing that there is one airframe that was flown out under the cover of darkness and is hidden somewhere in Canada is to place the Arrow alongside Bigfoot or the Bermuda Triangle as a magnet for kooks and conspiracy theorists.
I, like every one of my generation, admire and remember the Arrow, but like a failed first true love it’s best to keep the memory of it tucked away where it belongs. And the aerospace industry in Canada was far from crippled. Today, it is the fourth largest in the world - producing aircraft, engines and technology the world wants and needs. Enough said.
Arrow RL 201 lands after another successful test hop. Speed brakes and delicate gear are out and down as she comes in over the threshold at Malton.