The Arrow

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One of Canada’s great political controversies was the development and subsequent cancellation of a high-tech supersonic fighter during the 1950’s, the Avro Arrow. The CF-105 was designed to intercept Soviet aircraft approaching over the Arctic. It was engineered from top to bottom to tie into NORAD’s defense network as well as NATO’s specifications. Governments from the UK, Belgium and France were interested in purchasing Arrows. Unfortunately, the Canadian government decided the program wasn’t worth the cost.

In 1949 the Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb, escalating  Cold War tensions between the Communist east and the Capitalist west. To add some weight to their nuclear threat, the Red Air Force rolled out several variants of nuclear-capable long-range bombers that could reach the US via the Arctic circle. Heavy propaganda and the usual Stalinist sabre-rattling made the US very uneasy. The result was the formation of NORAD, an integrated US-Canadian air defense network based in Colorado and tasked with defending the skies of the continent, particularly the Arctic.

The Royal Canadian Air Force had been keeping up with modern aviation since the Second World War, trading in its Spitfires and Mustangs in 1945 for F-86’s. In 1950 Avro Canada designed and built the CF-100 Canuck, an all-weather high-altitude jet fighter. The CF-100 proved to be a rugged and adaptable aircraft, and the UK, Belgium and West Germany purchased several hundred of them.

Soviet Cold-War nuclear bombers capable of reaching mainland America via the Arctic.

Soviet Cold-War nuclear bombers capable of reaching mainland America via the Arctic.

The NORAD command centre in Colorado.

The NORAD command centre in Colorado.

CF-100 Canucks, Canada's most successful military aircraft.

CF-100 Canucks, Canada’s most successful military aircraft.

By 1953, however, the Canucks were already outdated. New delta-wing technology was being tested in the US and higher-powered engines, resulting in greater speed and altitude, coupled with cutting-edge missile technology, meant that the CF-100’s would soon be obsolete. The RCAF put together a commission (in true Canadian style) to study the needs of the future, and the resulting report was handed to Parliament. Through heavy lobbying Avro Canada was given the contract to develop a high-altitude, delta-wing supersonic jet fighter capable of delivering the newest American Sparrow II missiles to targets over the Arctic.

In 1953 the Avro design team went to work.

The first thing Avro did was design a new jet powerplant. At first they tried to configure existing American jet engines to provide the amount of thrust needed for the new concept aircraft, but no matter how much they tweaked the engines they couldn’t get the performance they were looking for. Instead Avro engineers went to work designing their own engine, the result of which was the Orenda Iroquois turbojet. With a record-breaking 20,000+ lbs of thrust in any weather, the Iroquois was huge and more powerful than any jet engine built up until that time.

The Iroquois engine, the most powerful jet engine of its day.

The Iroquois engine, the most powerful jet engine of its day.

The next step was to design an airframe that would fit around the Iroquois. Using the RCAF specifications for a swept-wing design, the Avro engineers played with different ideas. They built several mock-ups in wood, named the CF-102, 103 and 104. The final wing design was inspired by watching Canada geese lift into the air from a dead stall. Engineers noticed that the geese would bend their enormous wingspan back along their body and give them more speed and the resulting lift. They brought this concept to the project and the world’s first truly delta-wing aircraft was born.

In order to reduce drag and increase fuel capacity, the fighter was given another first in history: an all-internal armaments bay. Instead of carrying missiles on wing mounts like every fighter up to that point, engineers designed an internal bay that could carry the heavy Sparrow-II’s. When one needed firing, advanced avionics would quickly “drop” a missile out of the aircraft’s belly, where its rocket engines would light and it would take off.

Using the wooden models for testing, Avro engineers found that the combination of the Iroquois engine, the giant delta-wings and the internal armaments bay produced a fighter that could reach speeds and altitudes unheard of in the 1950’s. The Avro Arrow was born.

Avro Canada engineers

Avro Canada engineers

The Sparrow II missile, from the US, was the most advanced Air-to-Air missile of the day.

The Sparrow II missile, from the US, was the most advanced Air-to-Air missile of the day.

The final design specs of the CF-105 Avro Arrow.

The final design specs of the CF-105 Avro Arrow.

On October 4, 1957 the first completed Avro Arrow made its debut flight over Lake Ontario. Three more test flights took place after that, the final being a fully-armed and completed model in 1958. The pilot of that final test, Janusz Zurakowski, broke every world record when the Arrow broke 1,000 mph in a straight climb. Flying level at 55,000 feet, the Arrow could exceed 1,300 mph (or mach 2), the fastest and highest any aircraft  had flown up to that point.

The RCAF immediately ordered 200 of the amazing new fighters, and the UK, who was shopping around for replacement fighters, made known their interest. The US was busy developing their F101 Voodoo fighters and declined Canada’s offer to sell them Arrows.

The Arrow takes off for its final test flight in 1958.

The Arrow takes off for its final test flight in 1958.

With speeds nearing mach 2.0, the Arrow was the fastest thing in the skies in the late 1950's.

With speeds nearing mach 2.0, the Arrow was the fastest thing in the skies in the late 1950’s.

The Arrow touches down following successful flight trials that exceeded everyone's expectations.

The Arrow touches down following successful flight trials that exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Avro's engineers celebrate their success.

Avro’s engineers celebrate their success with Test Pilot Janus.

With so much success, groundbreaking new technologies and pioneering flight performances, Avro Canada was forecasting tremendous growth and becoming one of the world’s main aircraft suppliers. Unfortunately, all that was about to change.

On 20 February, 1959, only four months since the last flight test, Prime-Minister John Diefenbaker rose in Parliament and announced that his new Conservative government was scrapping the Arrow program. Citing the costs of the program and his disbelief in a real Soviet threat to North America, as well as the fact that US and Soviet rocket technology was quickly surpassing aviation (the Russians had just put Sputnik into orbit around that time), Diefenbaker said that he could not justify the costs of the Arrows.

Diefenbaker had been elected on a budget-slashing platform, and he was determined to balance Canada’s fiscal deficit. The Arrow program was costing hundreds of millions a year since 1953, and so it was one of the first big-ticket items to find itself under the Tory axe.

Prime-Minister John Diefenbaker announces the end of the Avro Arrow.

Prime-Minister John Diefenbaker announces the end of the Avro Arrow.

The announcement took Avro Canada by surprise. The day after the announcement, the RCAF gave orders to Avro to disassemble all Arrows and to burn all blueprints immediately, so that the advanced technology of the fighter wouldn’t fall into the hands of Soviet spies. The RCAF were particularly concerned with the specifications for the Iroquois engines, and a group of shadowy men in suits from the RCMP arrived at Avro headquarters in April to personally retrieve those blueprints (they haven’t been seen since). 14,500 Avro employees found themselves suddenly without a job.

NASA hired 25 of the Arrow engineers, who went on to help put Neil Armstrong on the moon 10 years later. For everyone else, however, the Arrow disappeared from the history books.

In 1994, 5 years after the end of the Cold War, a group of former Avro employees presented the Canadian Aerospace Museum in Ottawa with nosecone from an original Arrow. They had snuck one out in the dead of night in 1959, not wanting to give up all their hard work! The nose cone, as well as several wing panels, now sit in the museum and are all that remains of the Arrow, Canada’s once-mighty contribution to defense aviation!

A scale replica of the Arrow is unveiled in 2008, fifty years after the original was first built.

Original Arrow wing panels on display at the Canadian Aerospace Museum in Ottawa.

Original Arrow wing panels on display at the Canadian Aerospace Museum in Ottawa.

Former Avro engineers return to Ottawa in 2008 to see their airplane.

Former Avro engineers return to Ottawa in 2008 to see their airplane.

In a strange twist leading to conspiracy theories, after the RCMP made off with the Iroquois engine blueprints, the Soviets rolled out the Mig-25, using engines with the exact same performance, details and technology as the Iroquois...

In a strange twist leading to conspiracy theories, after the RCMP made off with the Iroquois engine blueprints, the Soviets rolled out the Mig-25, using engines with the exact same performance, details and technology as the Iroquois…

After scrapping the Arrow, Diefenbaker went on purchase 166 F-101 Voodoos, the Arrow's US competitor.

After scrapping the Arrow, Diefenbaker went on purchase 166 F-101 Voodoos, the Arrow’s US competitor.

 

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