Next month marks the 60th anniversary of the birth of one of aviation’s great “might-have-beens.” The start of development of an aircraft that became a source of national pride. The start of an aircraft that could have been a world-beater. I’m referring to Canada’s mighty Avro CF-105 Arrow fighter. But an even more recent anniversary looms on Monday: the 53rd anniversary of its death. Known as Black Friday by those in the Canadian aviation industry, February 20 is the day the Canadian government suddenly pulled the plug on the program. The airplane was already well into the flight-test phase.
The Arrow was conceived at a time when the biggest threat to North America was that of Soviet bombers swarming over the Polar cap to rain nuclear destruction across industrial centers in the U.S. and Canada. The fact that the vast expanse of Canada lay in their way led the Canadian government to issue a set of performance and design specifications calling for a supersonic, twin engine, all-weather, two-crew interceptor that could reach 50,000 feet and a speed of Mach 1.5 just five minutes from engine start. Canada examined current and planned aircraft from U.S. manufacturers, including the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo, and determined none could meet the requirements. So the government awarded the contract for the aircraft to A.V. Roe (Avro) Canada, which had previously designed the Royal Canadian Air Force’s subsonic CF-100 Canuck. The company also committed its Orenda division to simultaneously produce the Arrow’s Iroquois engines, each producing more than 19,000 pounds of dry thrust or 26,000 pounds with afterburner.
The resulting delta-winged aircraft was rolled out on Oct. 4, 1957, coincidentally the same day the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, which effectively captured all the media attention. For a fighter aircraft the Arrow was simply huge. Its fuselage was longer than that of a WWII bomber, as was its internal weapons bay. The tip of the aircraft’s fin stood 21 feet above the ground.
The Arrow first flew on March 25, 1958, and the aircraft performed nearly flawlessly. The five Arrows that were completed for the test program accumulated more than 70 flight hours over 66 flights during their brief existence. The last of the aircraft to fly completed only a single 40-minute hop. While the Iroquois engine continued in development, the Arrow ably flew on less powerful Pratt & Whitney J75s and still managed to surpass most of its design specifications. Using the J75, the Arrow achieved Mach 1.98 in level flight without the use of full power. Speculation at the time suggested that Avro delayed breaking the Mach 2 barrier and the speed record until it could do it with an “all Canadian” Arrow powered by indigenous Iroquois engines. Unfortunately, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker canceled the program, the same day the Iroquois-powered Arrow Mark 2 RL206 was to be completed.
When the ax fell, it did so with certainty and finality. On Feb. 20, 1959, less than a year after the first flight, all work on the program was ordered to cease immediately, idling approximately 15,000 workers, and all aircraft, parts, tooling, and documentation were ordered destroyed soon after. RL206, which was awaiting its first flight, was demolished as well despite the pleas of company workers, who begged the government to allow it to fly at least once. It was believed that the Mark 2 would have easily shattered the world speed and altitude records, given the opportunity. A late request by the British government to purchase several Arrows for use in the development program for a delta-winged supersonic commercial transport (which eventually resulted in Concorde) was likewise denied.
There are many theories as to why the Arrow program was canceled. Some say Russian spies had infiltrated the program to such an extent that all its many innovations were being funneled directly to Moscow. Conspiracy theorists point to more perfidious pressure placed on Canada by the U.S. government at the behest of military aircraft manufacturers such as McDonnell, Douglas, North American and Grumman, who perceived the high-performance Arrow as a threat to their sales. Officially, the government blamed the program costs. While numerous books have been written on the subject, the truth probably is some combination of these. In the wake of the Arrow’s cancellation, most of Avro’s engineering brain trust left the company, many eventually finding their way to NASA and contributing to the programs that eventually put men on the Moon.
To fill the Arrow’s intended role, Canada instead bought American nuclear-tipped Bomarc surface-to-air missiles. They became the subject of bitter debate and were soon phased out. Ironically, Canada was eventually forced to acquire a group of second-hand F-101 Voodoos from the U.S. Air Force, the very airplane that was originally rejected for not meeting the Arrow’s specifications.
Like many legends who passed before their time, the Arrow has developed a certain mystique as it fades into history. A docudrama miniseries “based on actual events” televised by the Canadian Broadcast Company during the mid-90s was CBC’s highest-rated program ever.
Today, a few odds and ends that escaped the scrap heap (including the severed nose section of the stillborn RL206, along with an Iroquois engine, one main gear leg, a pair of wingtips and a few cockpit panels) can be seen in Ottawa at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. The Canadian Navy has searched the depths of Lake Ontario for the 11 one-eighth-scale free-flight test models that were mounted on Nike missiles and fired over the lake during the design process.
More than a half-century on, rumors regarding the aircraft persist. Recently, the second of a matched pair of Martin-Baker ejection seats believed to have come from an Avro Arrow surfaced in England and was placed for sale on eBay, and at least one person claims to have seen something unmarked and Arrow-shaped land at an RAF base during the early 1960s. While the Canadian government ordered that no photographs be taken of the destruction of the aircraft, illicitly obtained aerial shots of the Avro plant ramp show all the test aircraft in various stages of dismemberment except for RL202, leading to speculation that perhaps an Arrow was saved from the torch. In a 1968 interview, one of the RCAF brass who participated in the development of the Arrow reportedly refused to answer a direct question about whether one of the aircraft escaped destruction. Indeed, the CBC miniseries ends with Avro workers and a maverick RCAF test pilot conspiring to purloin a fully fueled Arrow and fly it to an undisclosed destination with the apparent tacit approval and assistance of the RCAF command.
In my view the Arrow remains one of the most beautiful aircraft ever designed, and seeing a picture of it is almost like looking at a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, whose “candle burned out long before her legend ever did” (to borrow a line from Elton John). For what it’s worth, I hope that in a dark, dusty locked hangar somewhere in the Great White North sits a massive 1950s-era fighter, waiting for the day when it can once again see daylight and be rightfully displayed as one of aviation history’s greatest “might-have-beens.”