Saskatoon

Avro Arrow blueprints on display after sitting in Sask. man's home for decades

Thanks to an intrepid rescue more than 60 years ago, original blueprints of a famously cancelled Canadian military project are now on display at the University of Saskatchewan's Diefenbaker Canada Centre.

Blueprints ordered destroyed after fighter jet project scrapped 60 years ago; aeronautical designer saved them

Helanna Gessner, interim curatorial, exhibits and collections manager at the Diefenbaker Canada Centre, with Gord Barnes, posing with the original Avro Arrow blueprints. (Submitted by Diefenbaker Canada Centre)

Thanks to an intrepid rescue more than 60 years ago, original blueprints of a famously cancelled Canadian military project are now on display at the University of Saskatchewan's Diefenbaker Canada Centre.

In 1959, Ken Barnes was working as a senior draftsman for A.V. Roe (Avro) Canada, working on the Arrow, one of the most advanced fighter jets of its time.

When the program was cancelled by then-prime minister John Diefenbaker, Barnes was ordered to destroy any documents related to the project, lest they fall into enemy hands.

However, Barnes quietly spirited out blueprints of the project, storing them in his house for decades.

"He kind of kept them hidden away in the basement for years when we were kids," said Barnes's son, Gord. "There was a corner of the basement with a workbench and we didn't go in that corner for many years."

Blueprints of the Avro Arrow MK 2 prototype. (Submitted by Diefenbaker Canada Centre)

After inheriting the blueprints, Gord Barnes wasn't sure what to do with the historic documents. Eventually, he decided to lend them to the Diefenbaker Centre to be used as part of its exhibition Touch the Sky: The Story of Avro Canada.

"It's really a wonderful opportunity to hear the story of people who were part of the aviation and aerospace industry in Canada during that time in particular in the 1950s," said Barnes.

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

The Avro Arrow has long been seen as a missed opportunity for Canada to enter the high-tech world of aviation design. The Arrow was designed to intercept planes from the Soviet Union and shoot them down before they could bomb targets in North America.

The plane was able to travel nearly twice the speed of sound and was the fastest jet in its class.

However, the changing nature of warfare, especially after the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, meant the project was seen as outdated before it began production.

"The very same day that the Arrow was rolled out, Sputnik was launched," said Helanna Gessner, interim curatorial, exhibits and collections manager at the Diefenbaker Centre.

"It really closed the gap, from having a plane fly from Russia to North America to a missile being able to reach it much quicker." 

'He was very disappointed'

Barnes said his father was gutted when the project was shut down.

"Obviously, he was very disappointed," he said. "He loved his work and, you know, felt that the decision was wrong."

After the closure, the project's designers went on to work on some high-profile projects, including the design of the Concorde jet.

Dief the Chief on the Avro Arrow: 'It was right to end it.' 1:48

Ken Barnes would eventually end up on the design team of the Canadarm in the 1970s.

"The people who were involved in the industry at that time didn't have the benefit of all the sophisticated design technology and computers that we have now," Gord Barnes said.

"They worked, for the most part, on drawing boards with pencils and erasers and slide rules to develop some pretty sophisticated aircraft."

In addition to the blueprints, the exhibition also features models of the Arrow, trading cards and collectibles.

Touch the Sky: The Story of Avro Canada runs until April.

About the Author

David Shield is a web writer for CBC Saskatoon.

With files from CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning

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