Avro Arrow mystery deepens with U.K. discovery
Josh Visser, CTVNews.ca Staff
Published Sunday, December 18, 2011 9:45PM EST
The discovery of an intact ejection seat from Canada's legendary Avro Arrow is fuelling a half-century-old conspiracy theory that one of the purportedly destroyed jets was smuggled to safety.
The Avro Arrow program was infamously shut down by then-Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker in 1959. All related materials, from the prototype jets right down to the blueprints, were ordered destroyed.
The ejection seat was discovered in the hands of a private collector in the U.K., and has been tracked back to aviation museum closed during the 1970s.
So, how did the seat from an Arrow make its way to England?
Chris Wilson, the managing director of Jet Art Aviation, a British company that sells aircraft collectibles, suggests his discovery of the seat is the latest piece of evidence to suggest one Arrow escaped from Canada.
The seat, currently on sale on eBay for $250,000, is believed to be the matched pair to a second Arrow seat that Wilson found in 2008 and was sold to the Canadian Air and Space Museum in Toronto. The Arrow had a front pilot seat and a rear navigator seat.
"The chances of finding one in the first place is more or less a miracle, it's a holy grail aircraft item. The chances of finding two, is just ridiculous, really," Wilson said in a telephone conversation from Yorkshire, England.
"That got me thinking that the only way a pair of seats could have come to the U.K. like that in flown condition is if an aircraft came over here."
The ejection seats have been confirmed to CTVNews.ca to have been from the Arrow program by Martin-Baker, the world's leading ejection seat manufacturer. A letter of authenticity by Martin-Baker's head of business development Andrew Martin is available on the Jet Art Aviation website.
Martin-Baker had a licensed facility in Collingwood, Ont. during the 1950s and was building the seats for the program.
The data plate on the seat lists its manufacturing date as Sept. 15, 1958.
"There's no question whatsoever that this seat comes from an Avro Arrow," Wilson said adamantly. "It's 100 per cent an Arrow seat."
He added that probably less than 20 ejection seats in total came off the production line for the Arrow.
Wilson is also confident that the seat he is selling came from an Arrow that saw significant time in the sky.
"This is clearly a used, flown seat," he said. "It saw a 100-plus, maybe as many as a 1,000 flying hours."
Theory number one
Wilson said he had an inkling that an Arrow made its way over to the U.K thanks to the pair of seats, but a chance conversation with a customer gave him a firmer hypothesis.
According to Wilson, the customer (who did not wish to speak on the record to CTV News) was an aviation fan who once lived near the RAF Manston air base near Kent, England.
The customer told Wilson that as a teenager he often watched planes land at the base and he still remembered a strange incident in which a white, high delta wing aircraft with no national markings or registration landing at the base in the early 1960s.
"He's still 100 per cent adamant he saw an Arrow aircraft land," Wilson said.
Wilson said ex-RAF members say that the existence of an Arrow in the U.K. was a local legend within the force during the 1960s.
Theory number two
Robin Sipe, the owner of S and S Turbines, a military and industrial engine repair company in British Columbia, actually owns one of the few engines made for the Avro Arrow.
Sipe is restoring an Orenda Iroquois Series II engine (built for the Arrow) that he came to learn about through a chance encounter with an engineer at a gas turbine conference. The engineer told him he worked on an Iroquois engine while in university in the U.K. during the 1960s. (The parent company of the Avro program, Hawker Siddeley, was British and shipped the engine over.)
It took Sipe a few years but he eventually managed to track down the engine through a complex series of moves -- including buying a Second World War-era plane to use as barter -- and had the engine delivered to British Columbia.
Sipe said Wilson contacted him recently to talk about his engine and the Arrow, but he poured some cold water on Wilson's theory.
"As to an Arrow actually escaping destruction and leaving Canada, I highly doubt such took place. I certainly hope to be proven wrong, but the facts simply do not support the notion that an Arrow was flown to the U.K.," he said.
Sipe noted the Arrow did not have the range to make it to the U.K., let alone Iceland from Ontario.
"How would they get the aircraft there?" he said.
However, he did have a theory on how the seats ended up in the U.K.
"The seats, being highly technical and containing pyrotechnics, would have been one of the first items removed from the Arrow aircraft before scrapping. Likely, a request was made by the British Ministry of Defence to evaluate the seats for potential consideration of using the Martin Baker seats in then upcoming aircraft, such as the TSR2," he said.
While Sipe is quite confident there were no Arrows saved, he does admit to one mystery that still lingers, allowing for the "romantic" possibility.
"(The) first pictures taken of the MK-1 Arrow aircraft sitting on the flight line after program cancellation show all of the Arrows, S/N RL-201 through RL-205. However, later pictures taken do not show aircraft RL-202. No one seems to know what happened to RL-202 which had just received major maintenance due to landing gear collapse experienced several months prior, and was just repaired and returned to flight worthiness immediately before program cancellation," he said.
"I cannot say with 100 per cent certainty that no Arrow aircraft escaped destruction, however it does seem highly unlikely."
Regardless, Sipe said he appreciates any attention on the Arrow because he thinks many Canadians don't understand how advanced their country was in the aerospace sector.
"People don't realize that Canada was by far and away on the cutting edge of aerospace technology. Light years ahead of everyone else. That's the real story, never mind the mystery about why it was cancelled."
More fuel for the fire
It's not just Wilson that has the theory of an Arrow being smuggled away.
Famed Canadian journalist June Callwood, who died in 2007, speculated that one Arrow, equipped with the powerful Iroquois engine, made it to safety. A pilot herself, she wrote an article for Maclean's magazine saying she heard the distinctive sound of an Arrow flying over Toronto, the day after it was announced the jets were to be destroyed.
"‘The Arrow!' I thought in amazement. Nothing else could make such a racket. Someone has flown an Arrow to safety." she wrote in the 1997 article, recalling her youth.
Air Marshall Wilfred Curtis, the First World War ace who headed the Arrow program only helped fuel rumours and theories that one of interceptors was saved. In a 1968 interview with the Toronto Star, he refused to answer when asked if an Arrow was smuggled away.
Like "The X-Files" tells us, the truth is out there. The U.K's Official Secrets releases classified information in 30-, 50- and 100-year intervals. It will be 50 years from the alleged arrival of a Arrow into the hands of the RAF very soon.
The ejection seat remains on sale on eBay. Wilson said he already received a $40,000 bid but he said the seat is a priceless historical artifact and hopes he can do better.