Remembering the death of the Avro Arrow

Since the death of the legendary Avro Arrow interceptor 50 years ago, the plane has been celebrated and mourned as a symbol of Canada's best technology and its loss. But how deep and lasting was the blow to Canadian aviation technology when the Avro Arrow died?

A tragedy for technology?

All existing prototypes of the Avro Arrow were destroyed, but a full-scale replica was built and unveiled in 2006. It's housed at the Canadian Air and Space Museum in Toronto. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Aviation buffs celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight in Canada on Monday, but some also paused to mourn this week for the legendary Avro Arrow interceptor.

The development of the supersonic fighter plane, hailed for the advanced technology it represented, was halted suddenly on Feb. 20, 1959 — 50 years ago Friday — by Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. The program, supported by his Liberal predecessor, Louis St. Laurent, was expected to have a final cost of $1 billion and was deemed too expensive. All existing prototypes were destroyed.

Since then, the plane has been mourned and celebrated as a symbol of some of Canada's best technology and its loss.

But how deep and lasting was the blow to Canadian aviation technology when the Avro Arrow died?

Aviation experts agree that the Arrow, developed by A.V. Roe Canada in Malton, Ont., over 14 years, was an impressive aircraft.

"What made the Arrow unique was its performance at the time," said Stephen Payne, curator of aeronautical technology at the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa, in an email.

The two-seater plane could fly at close to Mach 2 — twice the speed of sound — and could make extremely sharp turns at an altitude of 15,000 metres without losing height, Payne said.

It was designed to fly higher and faster than anything available at the time, in all kinds of weather, to intercept Soviet bombers that might have entered North American airspace over the North Pole during the Cold War.

Payne said some of the Arrow's pioneering features included:

  • The use of titanium in its airframe and engine designs at a time when the metal was hard to obtain.
  • "Artificial feel" in the aircraft's control system. Such systems allow the controls to artificially provide increased resistance in response to higher speeds and acceleration, so the pilot has a better sense what he or she is causing the aircraft to do, leading to improved safety.
  • Fly-by-wire technology, which incorporates electronic control systems instead of relying solely on mechanical and hydro-mechanical systems to manage the controls.
  • A high-pressure hydraulic system to operate the aircraft's control system.

Peter Pigott, who has written 14 books about aviation and teaches aviation management at Ottawa's Algonquin College, said the plane also had an interior weapons bay at a time when most planes carried weapons on their wings.

Legendary engine

The Avro Arrow was capable of flying at nearly twice the speed of sound. ((CBC Archives))

Its powerful, Canadian-designed Orenda engine was also amazing, especially considering how quickly Avro managed to develop it, Pigott said.

"Don't forget — this is the days when jet aircraft were almost like science fiction. They had barely been invented," he said, adding that engines are very difficult to make. "It takes six months to make a car, it takes two years to make an aircraft — engines take over 20 years to develop."

For that reason, a single engine design is usually used in multiple models of cars or planes, Pigott said, but that was not the case for the Avro Arrow's engine or its other parts.

"They were all torched and broken up into little pieces," he said. "The fear was the technology in them would fall into the wrong hands."

But Payne said that doesn't mean the technology was lost for good.

"All of the Arrow's innovations have survived and can be found in the latest fighter/interceptor aircraft developed elsewhere," he said.

"The real tragedy of the Arrow's cancellation was the breaking up of one of the world's leading design and development teams at Avro."

After the Arrow was cancelled, Avro laid off 14,000 workers. Many of Avro's former engineers went on to careers at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where they worked on the Apollo program that put the first men on the moon, Payne said. Others joined the American or British aerospace industries, and some helped develop the Concorde supersonic jet.

Brain drain didn't kill industry

That brain drain certainly hurt Canada, Payne added.

"However, it didn't kill our aerospace industry as was feared at the time."

Canadian companies continued to build and design military aircraft by using and adapting foreign designs, Payne said. Several were later amalgamated into Bombardier Aerospace, which now focuses on jet and commuter aircraft and is one of the largest aerospace manufacturers in the world.

The Canadian aviation industry also turned its attention to other civilian aircraft, developing STOL (short takeoff and landing) technology, which is showcased in planes such as the de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver bush plane.

Pigott said pilots call the Beaver, which is still used all over the world, the "Swiss Army knife" because of its versatility.

"That's the best bush plane in the world and that's what Canada should be proud of."

He thinks the Avro Arrow often gets more public attention because of its demise.

"It's like the Titanic — because it died, people remember it."

But he said that although Canadians are very proud of both the Avro Arrow and the Silver Dart — which made Canada's first controlled, powered flight in Baddeck, N.S., on Feb. 23, 1909 — both planes actually used a lot of U.S. technology. In fact, the Silver Dart was built in Hammondsport, N.Y.

"Aviation is a global thing. It doesn't belong to one single country," Pigott said. "You look at an aircraft today and I can point to you — the wings are made in Taiwan, the engines are made in France, bits and pieces are made in the States, Israel. No one country has the monopoly on aviation and that's the way it should be."