Years ago while working as an editor for a technical publication firm then preparing overhaul and maintenance manuals for Canadian Forces jets, I happened to mention to one of the head writers that it was somewhat ironic that we were upgrading manuals for the CF-101 Voodoo, the aircraft that replaced the CF-105 Avro Arrow, which was far superior in every aspects to the American-made fighter jet.
At the time, I was unaware that the man had been involved in the Arrow program, but he soon made it clear that he had played a role in producing the aircraft.
The first words out of him were to the effect that John Diefenbaker was related in some way to a cur and in his mind was the most despicable prime minister in Canadian history for cancelling the Avro Arrow project in February 1958.
Following his invectives against Diefenbaker’s character, he informed me that he had been engaged in the design and production of the landing gear for the aircraft built at the Avro Canada plant in Malton, Ontario. The landing gear was a unique feature that had to be specifically designed to bear the weight of the heavy aircraft.
“It was a beautiful plane,” he said of the delta-wing interceptor. “The Americans couldn’t touch it and they knew it. It was far better than anything they could have built at the time.”
In fact, the Arrow was designed for a flying ceiling of over 50,000 feet, and with the installation of the Avro-made Iroquois engines would have been able to reach a speed of Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound) or greater — some projected the Arrow could even hit Mach 3.
Using inferior American jet engines, it had topped Mach 1.1 by its third test flight and Mach 1.52 by its seventh.
Aviation experts were saying that the Arrow was 50 years ahead of its time.
The sixth Mark 2 aircraft was being fitted to receive the Iroquois engines when the cancellation was announced by Diefenbaker on February 20, 1959. Avro was ordered to cease all production on the airplane. The company then fired all 14,000 people working at its plant. Shortly afterward, the prototypes and first Iroquois-powered Arrow and other aircraft in various stages of construction were ingloriously cut up and sold for scrap. All that remains today is the nose of Arrow RL-206, the sixth prototype — the aircraft believed capable of setting a new speed record.
The reasons behind the cancellation and why the aircraft already being produced were turned into scrap has contributed to the myths that have arisen and continue to fascinate Canadians. Although the Diefenbaker government cited it’s cost as the reason for its cancellation, many think it had more to do with politics and American interference rather then economics. The fact that the Diefenbaker government backed the American option of the Bomarc missile, which turned out to be a dud, instead of the CF-105 has added to the speculation about the cancellation. Without an advanced jet to uphold its NATO commitments, the Diefenbaker government was forced to purchase Voodoo jets, which was more fodder for Arrow proponents.
With its performance levels and ground-breaking design, it’s no surprise that the Arrow has been resurrected as the answer to replacing the aging CF-18 Hornets (procured between 1982 and 1989, and has a maximum speed of Mach 1.8) now being used by the RCAF, rather than the much-maligned American-built F-35 with its big-ticket price-tag of $25 billion (the Harper government says its just $16 billion to equip the RCAF with 65 copies of the aircraft). Among the champions promoting the rebirth of the Arrow is retired Maj-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie. He told reporters that the Arrow’s basic design and platform still exceeds any current fighter jet and would be well-suited for Canada’s needs.
Bourdeau Industries, which has offices in Canada and the United Kingdom, first suggested the Arrow to the Harper government in 2011. The company’s proposal was updated in 2012 which claimed the aircraft could fly 20,000 feet higher than the F-35 and fly twice as fast using updated Iroquois engines, as well as cost less to make. Marc Bourdeau said a fleet of 100 Arrows could be delivered to the RCAF for $9 billion.
MacKenzie said he had personally taken Bourdeau Industries, proposal to cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as incoming Chief of Defence Staff Lt.-Gen. Tom Larson.
MacKenzie told reporters that he wouldn’t be urging the Harper government to take a serious look at the CF-105 if he wasn’t so disappointed by the F-35.
The F-35 program is suffering from a spate of cost overruns and continued delays — the Americans are even becoming disillusioned with the aircraft. As well, the auditor general said that the Canadian public is being mislead by the Harper government, claiming it was hiding addition costs of $10 billion.
Because of the sharp criticism the federal government is now facing as a result of its decision to go with the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber, the prime minister and his staff have been more circumspect about their selection. Politically, the F-35 is steadily becoming a “too-hot-to-handle” aircraft.
Meanwhile, the Harper government announced that the Arrow is a pipedream, saying that there may be an emotional attachment to the aircraft, but it would be too expensive and time-consuming to upgrade to modern specifications.
“While we appreciate the sentimental value of the Avro Arrow,” said Andrew MacDougall, director of communications for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, “which was cancelled 53 years ago, analysts looked at the proposal and determined that it was not a realistic option” (Steven Chase, Globe and Mail, September 11).
“The proposal to develop, test and manufacture what would effectively be a brand-new aircraft is risky and would take too long and cost too much to meet Canada’s designs.”
In the wake of MacDougall’s statements, arises the feeling of what could have been. Would Canadians be debating the selection of the F-35 or the reliance upon an American-built aircrafts over the past 53 years, if the Avro Arrow program had not been cancelled in 1958?
The technical writer friend, who has since died, would have been the first to say that Canada would have been the envy of the aviation world if it had kept the Arrow alive and as a result maintained the highly-skilled engineers and Avro staff who went on to play integral roles in the success of NASA’s space programs.
Besides, if the Canadian government is so intent on spending the astronomical sum of $25 billion on purchasing aircraft, why not give the Avro Arrow another chance to fly.