The Avro Arrow, Canada's 'greatest plane that never was'

The Avro Arrow could have been many things - the fastest plane in the world, defence against Soviet bombers, Canada's entry into the supersonic age. Instead, it became a $400-million pile of scrap metal.

Arrow was a much-anticipated, years-long aviation dream that died on Feb. 20, 1959.

Canada's first supersonic fighter plane makes its triumphant first flight. 4:00

Just before 10 a.m. on March 25, 1958, Arrow RL-201 roared into the skies northwest of Toronto for its first test flight. 

The Arrow One, Canada's first supersonic fighter plane was finally ready to fly, after years of planning, work by thousands of people, $200 million and 17,000 blueprints.  

CBC  Newsmagazine's cameras captured the event, as it was watched live by  Avro officials, plant workers, and public onlookers around the airport perimeter.

'Previously secret films'

Two weeks later, Newsmagazine brought Canadians an exclusive look inside the hangars. 

A technician at the Malton facility where the Avro Arrow supersonic jet arranges models on a display table in 1958. (CBC Archives/Newsmagazine)

The television cameras captured models undergoing spin and "free flight" tests, a wooden engineering mock-up, engineers subjecting the various components of the plane to arduous tests, and test pilots checking out the cockpit.

'The first production aircraft in production before it was tested'

CBC's Newsmagazine takes viewers behind the scenes at the Malton airport hangar where the Avro Arrow was tested and built. 8:00

But the dream of producing the plane that would bring Canadian aviation into the supersonic age was ended in 1959. 

On Feb. 20, 1959, a day that workers came to call "Black Friday," the announcement of the layoff of approximately 14,000 workers came. The project, which had run to a total cost of $400 million had been scrapped.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker explained the reasoning behind the unequivocal scrapping of the project. 

With the current development in the U.S.S.R. of missiles and the threatened buildup of nuclear weaponry, he noted that if the production of the jet continued "the defence that would be available to Canada by 1962 would be ineffectual."

'A funeral procession'

The prime minister explains the reasoning behind the sudden cancellation of the Avro Arrow project. 1:15

CBC Radio News was at the plant as tool makers, designers, maintenance men and office workers drove away, for the last time.  Reporter Bill Beatty interviewed them as they left in "a funeral procession of cars, bumper to bumper."   

One worker reported that the announcement had come with no warning — "we were just working and they put it over the loud speaker, everybody as from now was laid off." 

14,525 shocked Avro workers are terminated at once. As they leave, they express their anger to CBC reporters. 3:11

Two decades later, Kay Shaw, a senior design draftsman on the project, described the destruction of the completed planes, models and all materials and plans related to its development, "an act of obscenity that nobody has been able to explain."