The Avro Arrow

From BBC Future (hat tip: David Winter):

The record-breaking jet which still haunts a country
A decade after the end of World War Two, Canada built a jet which pushed technology to its limits. But its demise showed why smaller nations found it difficult to compete in the Jet Age.

In the early years of the Cold War, Canada decided to design and build the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world.

Canada is well known for its rugged bush planes, capable of rough landings and hair-raising take-offs in the wilderness. From the late 1930s, the North American country had also started to manufacture British-designed planes for the Allied war effort. Many of these planes were iconic wartime designs like the Hawker Hurricane fighter and Avro Lancaster bomber.

Ambitious Canadian politicians and engineers weren’t satisfied with this. They decided to forge a world-leading aircraft manufacturing industry out of the factories and skilled workforce built up during the war. Tired of manufacturing aircraft designed by others, this new generation of Canadian leaders were determined to produce Canadian designs. Avro Aircraft, the Canadian airplane maker created after the war, was the company that would deliver their dream.

Freed from the set ways-of-thinking of Avro’s more established rivals, the firm’s engineers were able to work on revolutionary jet fighters, commercial airliners, flying saucers and even a space plane. They placed Canada at the technological cutting edge of the new Jet Age.

In so doing, these engineers challenged notions of what small countries like Canada could achieve in the hi-tech industries of the day, even if convincing politicians to stump up the cash for them was an altogether trickier business.

Then came the Arrow. On 4 October 1957, 14,000 people watched a large hangar on the outskirts of Toronto open to reveal a beautiful, large, white, delta-wing aircraft. The plane was the Avro Arrow interceptor. A third longer and broader than today’s Eurofighter Typhoon, the Arrow could fly close to Mach 2.0 (1,500 mph, or the maximum speed of Concorde), and had the potential to fly even faster. It was Canada’s Can$250m (US$1,58bn today) bid to become an aviation superpower.

The project was genuinely ground-breaking. Avro’s engineers had been allowed to build a record-breaker without compromise. But Canadians would soon discover that the supersonic age had made aviation projects so expensive that only a handful of countries could carry them out – and Canada, unfortunately, wasn’t one of them.

Read the whole thing. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker canceled the Arrow in 1959 for genuine reasons of cost, but it was a huge blow to national pride, and the ordered destruction of everything to do with the project (for reasons of security) seemed an added insult. Fifteen thousand people lost their jobs as a result, although NASA did cherry-pick 33 Canadian engineers and put them to good use. They might not have been as important as Von Braun’s German team, or even the Hidden Figures ladies, but they made some genuine contributions to the moon shot, including the Lunar Orbiter Rendezvous concept, the design of the Lunar Module, and the design of the heat shield to protect the Command Module upon its return to Earth (see this CTV News article for more). 

As it happens we saw an episode of the Canadian television series Murdoch Mysteries this week. Set in Toronto in the 1890s, the episode (entitled “Murdoch Air“) featured the fictional inventor James Pendrick and his prototype heavier-than-air aircraft, which he called Pendrick Arrow, a clear reference to the Avro Arrow. It too gets deliberately destroyed. 

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