Sleek, technogically advanced and faster than any jet of its time, the Avro Arrow is the most famous aircraft in Canadian history. To this day, it fuels engineers’ dreams and underpins one of Canada’s most enduring legends.
Eric Gibson, a designer of aircraft engines and dedicated volunteer at the Paris Museum and Historical Society, would like to have been part of the team of highly skilled engineers who produced the storied aircraft. Alas, he emigrated to Canada too late. When the British engineer arrived in Montreal in 1964, the Arrow was but a poignant memory.
He was recruited by aerospace manufacturer Pratt and Whitney. As he was introduced to his new colleagues, one after the other told him proudly: “I worked on the Avro Arrow project.”
Intrigued, Gibson learned everything he could about the Canadian supersonic interceptor jet.
Today he is so knowledgeable that he gives lectures on the subject, supplemented by a slide show and brought to life by anecdotes from people touched by the project. He delivered his talk at the Paris Museum on March 13, 2018 — the 60th anniversary of the Arrow’s first flight.
“It was a very adventurous project,” he said. “We’ll never know what might have been.”
His predominantly male audience of 20 sat spellbound as he told the story of the Avro Arrow, from its promising beginning in the mid 1950s to its heartbreaking end in 1959.
The CF-105, better known as the Avro Arrow, was conceived in the Cold War. Russia was working on a supersonic bomber. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) turned to Avro Canada, a Malton-based aircraft manufacturer with a good track record, to design the world’s most advanced military interceptor.
The company assigned a crack team of designers and engineers to the task. It decided to create the mainframe and buy the engine and weapons system off the shelf to keep the project affordable.
The Arrow team tried things that had never been done before; computer-aided design (when computers were in their infancy), extensive use of lightweight titanium and composites, newly-discovered aerodynamic principles.
Skipping the prototype stage entirely, Avro rolled out the first Arrow on Oct. 4, 1957. In an ominous foreshadow of what was to come, the unveiling of the Canada’s most advanced military jet was overshadowed by the launch of Russia’s Sputnik missile.
“The Arrow was designed to chase supersonic bombers,” Gibson explained. “With missiles, it didn’t have a mission.”
Moreover, the political atmosphere had become hostile. That year, John Diefenbaker, a Conservative prairie lawyer promising improved social programs, won the general election, ending 22 years of Liberal rule. “Diefenbaker was not admired by people in the aircraft industry,” Gibson observed wryly.
The third strike against the Arrow was its cost. By the time the mainframe was built, the engine of choice, made by Rolls Royce had been discontinued. The design team hastily substituted Pratt and Whitney engines in its test models. Then there were problems with the landing gear, requiring costly repairs. Each adjustment drove up the price tag.
The Arrow performed well on its first flight. But its fate was already sealed. “It was getting frightfully expensive,” Gibson admitted. “And it is a bit pointless keeping an aircraft when you don’t have a mission for it.”
On Feb. 20, 1959 — known as “Black Friday” in the aircraft industry — the axe fell. Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons and announced the termination of the Avro Arrow project.
All five test models and the 34 aircraft in production were to be destroyed; parts and equipment were to be scrapped; plans, drawings and technical specifications were to be demolished.
More than 14,500 highly-skilled workers at Avro lost their livelihoods that day. A further 10,000 positions were cut by Avro’s suppliers. “People were told to pack their things and leave,” Gibson recounted. “They didn’t believe they were out of a job.”
The top engineers dispersed, some to aircraft makers in the U.S., some to Pratt and Whitney, some to other industries.
For years, rumours circulated that someone flew one of the Arrows to safety. In 1997, June Callwood, a respected Canadian journalist and pilot herself, wrote in Maclean’s magazine that she heard the distinctive sound of an Arrow flying over Toronto the day after Diefenbaker announced that the jets were to be destroyed. In 1968, Air Marshall Wilfred Curtis, the First World War flying ace who headed the Arrow program, refused to answer when a Toronto Star reporter asked whether one of the Arrows was still intact. To this day, some “Arrowheads” believe it is out there waiting to be found.
Gibson is dubious, but he can say with assurance that “there are a lot of parts in people’s basements.”
The Arrow lives on in legend; kept alive by the families of the workers who thought they were making history; by aviation buffs savouring Canada’s moment of aeronautical leadership; and by ordinary Canadians captivated by the tale of a high-flying aircraft, grounded before it could soar.