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How Canada's dream supersonic interceptor became a national nightmare

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It was meant to be one of the most advanced aircraft of its era, dispatching the threat of Soviet nuclear bombers and making Canada a world leader in military aviation and engineering.

The Avro Arrow, also known as the CF-105, had a lot resting on its wings.

However, the dream turned into a nightmare when the program was cancelled less than a year after the plane’s first flight, and well before it entered into service.

To this day, 65 years later, the Avro Arrow remains one of Canada’s biggest collective regrets and still fuels public discourse, as recently unveiled documents have shed some light on exactly what happened to the doomed project.

“This aircraft was completely Canadian,” says Richard Mayne, chief historian of the Royal Canadian Air Force, “and the performance markers during its development very much showed that it was at least on par with the most advanced designs of the time.”

“When it got cancelled, that was one of Canada’s ’what if’ moments,” he adds. “The Arrow has still got a grip on our national psyche.”

Cold War threat

The Avro Arrow was a direct response to the perceived threat from the Soviet Union, following the end of World War II, of bombers capable of flying over the Arctic and reaching North America with a nuclear payload.

“The Royal Canadian Air Force put out a requirement in 1952 for an interceptor capable of Mach 2 speed and an altitude of 50,000 feet,” Mayne tells CNN.

“They needed something fast that had the range and the altitude to intercept these Soviet bombers as far north as possible, before they reached Canada.”

Aircraft manufacturer Avro Canada had just successfully put into service the CF-100 Canuck, a versatile twinjet fighter designed and built in Canada, and was tasked with developing a vastly more advanced version of it.

It was an ambitious plan that came at a significant moment for Canada.

“The country had emerged from the Second World War as a major player,” says Mayne. “We had the third largest navy in the world, the fourth largest air force. But Canadian citizenship didn’t actually exist until 1947 – Canada had just come of age.”

Development started in 1955, and in record time the first Arrow was rolled out to the public, on October 4, 1957 – the same day as the launch of the Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite, which marked the start of the space age.

“It was a coincidence,” says Mayne, “but a horrible one, because Sputnik demonstrated that you could put a nuclear payload on the rocket that sent it into orbit. And the Arrow wouldn’t be able to do anything about intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

Dead on arrival

Designed for a crew of two and sporting a “delta” wing design and a white livery that gave it an elegant look, the Arrow was just under 78 feet long with a wingspan of 50 feet, making it comparatively larger than both its predecessor, the CF-100 Canuck, and the Phantom F4, a dominant American fighter plane that would enter service in 1961.

It first flew on March 25, 1958, but by that time, Mayne says, strategic thinkers, senior military personnel and politicians already believed the world had entered a “push button” warfare scenario, where the nuclear threat was restricted to long-range missiles, with interceptors and bombers no longer playing a dominant role.

“That turned out to be false, because the bomber threat continued and it continues to this day, but that was the thinking at the time,” says Mayne.

The plane had lost relevance, and the ballooning costs of the project and the changing political climate did the rest.

On February 20, 1959, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker cancelled the program, and within weeks the five planes that had been built, along with most of the assembly line, were destroyed for fear that they could be the subject of Soviet espionage. As a result, thousands of jobs were lost and Avro Canada eventually collapsed entirely.

“If the United Kingdom had bought some Arrows, that actually might have saved the program,” says Mayne.

“But with no foreign contracts, our country was too small to support such an advanced technology. We were shooting for the stars, which is ironic because a lot of Avro engineers later went down to NASA and helped with the Apollo program.”

A life of its own

Rumours and myths immediately began to swirl around the reasons for the abrupt cancellation of the program, some of which persist to this day.

“The aircraft has taken on almost a mythological standing in Canada,” says Alan Barnes, a senior fellow at Ottawa’s Carleton University who has looked at the role played by intelligence in the decision to stop the plane’s development.

One set of myths, according to Barnes, essentially blames the United States for misleading Canada on the shifting Soviet threat, supposedly because they didn’t want Canada to produce an aircraft that would have been better than American ones.

Another says Canadian intelligence analysts deliberately misconstrued information to support a decision that the government had essentially made, providing an excuse for it.

“But all of this was speculation, as nobody had actually seen the intelligence reports,” he says.

But in 2023, Barnes published a paper on those reports, after retrieving archival documents that show a clear link between the intelligence and how it was used by those in charge at the time.

“At the beginning, the air force really didn’t pay any attention to intelligence,” he tells CNN.

“They decided they wanted a big new fancy plane, so they came up with all the operational requirements largely in isolation, without really paying attention to what the reports were saying.”

By the late 1950s, he adds, the Arrow was getting very expensive and quite delayed.

“Canadian intelligence produced a very high quality assessment in early 1958, saying the bomber threat was nowhere near as serious as previously thought, and that the Soviets weren’t building up a massive bomber force, and were likely to shift their production and research into missiles,” says Barnes.

The policy implication was that if a threat was being reduced, there was very little reason to be spending so much money on an aircraft that wouldn’t be able to deal with the ballistic missiles.

“By the summer of 1958, the Chiefs of Staff Committee had come to the conclusion that they could no longer recommend continuing with the program, but didn’t want to cancel it right then because of the political impact,” says Barnes.

“They sort of delayed things into early 1959, when it was still seen publicly as a disaster for Canadian industry as well as a political scandal. The government did what they needed to do, but it blew up in their face. They lost the election a couple of years later, to a certain extent on these defense issues.”

According to Barnes, the aircraft was never as good as people made it out to be.

“It was cancelled at just the right time to maintain this kind of mythology,” he says.

“It never flew with any of its armaments and the actual engines that it was designed to use. Everything was potential, so many Canadians can still pretend that this would have been the best aircraft in the world.”

Enduring impact

In 1997, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) commissioned a TV miniseries about the plane titled “The Arrow” starring Dan Aykroyd as Crawford Gordon, president of Avro Canada. A full-size wooden model of the aircraft was built for the production and is currently in the archives of the Reynolds Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alberta.

Another model, made of aircraft-grade aluminum, is on display at the Edenvale Airport in Stayner, Ontario. A third model, about two-thirds the size of a real Arrow, is under construction at Springbank Airport in Calgary – but this one is meant to actually fly. It’s the passion project of a group of engineers who are hoping to take it to the skies by 2026.

Although none of the actual Arrows have survived intact, the original cockpit and nose gear of one of them as well as parts of the wings of another are on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.

Perhaps the strongest indication of Canada’s obsession with the Arrow came in 2018, when after a year of searching, sunken Arrow models were recovered from the bottom of Lake Ontario. The models were fired across the lake as part of flight tests in the mid-1950s, and numerous groups had been looking for them before without success.

The endeavour was funded out of pocket by John Burzynski, a Canadian mining businessman.

“The significance of finding the models lies in reminding Canadians of the great effort that went into designing, testing, building and flying an advanced technological aircraft, all done in a short six-year timeframe,” Burzynski says, adding that among the pieces discovered was one of the very first test models, substantially intact, which is now on display at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.

Speaking of the importance and role of the Arrow in Canadian history, Burzynski says that everything was possible to the generation that followed World War II, and the world was changing quickly.

“The massive effort that went into the Arrow program was essentially a live exercise, showing that anything is possible when enough effort and ingenuity is applied to a problem,” he says.

“To many it seems that this would have been an inflection point for Canada to develop both a vigorous air and possibly even space program, had it not been abruptly cancelled.”

Correction

An earlier headline on this story mischaracterized the Avro Arrow. It was an interceptor aircraft.

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