The Cancellation of the Avro Arrow

CF-105 Avro Arrow, a long-range supersonic jet capable of intercepting Soviet bombers was abruptly cancelled. What did that bring to the country?

When the world was gripped by the fear of nuclear attack during the Cold War, Canada stepped to the forefront of the response from nations allied against the USSR. It developed the CF-105 Avro Arrow, a long-range supersonic jet capable of intercepting Soviet bombers. Streamlined and elegant, it could perform at higher altitudes and higher speeds than any other aircraft. It was considered one of Canada's most exceptional aviation achievements, and would have been a splendid example of what this modest country can do with enough imagination and funding. "The Arrow represents a period when Canada stood up on its own and did its own thing," said Paul Squires, a historian with the Canadian Aeronautical Preservation Association, in an interview with Global News. "In many ways, it has become a symbol of the country."  

The reason for the project’s cancellation is a mix of politics, timing, and bad luck. On the same day that the Mark I Avro Arrow rolled out of its hangar; the Soviets successfully launched the first human-made object into space. The Cold War arms race suddenly shifted from classic bombers and supersonic jets to atmospheric weaponry. “It really was a case of the worst timing,” Squires said. “The same day as Avro rolls out their aircraft, you had millions of people around the world looking up at the stars, trying to look for Sputnik [satellite].”

The life of the Arrow ended on March 20, 1959, since known as “Black Friday.” What had been a national symbol of pride became one of failure. What were the most significant consequences the cancellation brought to Canada? It affected the Canadian economy, discouraged Canadian aerospace engineering development and allowed the U.S. Air Force to remain dominant in that field.

The cancellation of the Avro Arrow strongly affected the economy of Canada. As the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. escalated, the Arrow was poised to become the most advanced aircraft that could defend the country. At the start of the project, the Canadian government ordered 5 Mark I prototypes and a whopping 35 Mark II aircrafts. The contract created thousands of jobs and stimulated related industries. When the Diefenbaker government announced an abrupt end to the project, over 15,000 workers were left jobless. Thousands more were affected because supplier companies that had expanded to handle more demand went bankrupt.

Unveiled in 1957, the Mark I Arrow prototype hit a top speed of Mach 1.98 during test flights, beating the world record held by the American F-101A Voodoo fighter jet. The fully-functional Mark II Arrows were just a few months from being launched. This second-generation Arrow would have been equipped with the Iroquois engine that Avro designed to be lighter and more powerful. It could easily surpass the Mach 2.0 barrier and set a new record in supersonic jet history. 

Before the Mark II Arrows were launched, the Canadian government announced that the five working prototypes and all parts created for the Mark II jets were to be destroyed and sold for $0.065 per pound to junk dealers in Hamilton. Although the government declared that "the five finished craft have not been touched," Minister of Defense Production Raymond O'Hurly admitted two days later that they were being dismantled. In a book about the scandal, Murray Peden wrote: “This appalling act of vandalism, […], the five finished aircraft were each costing the taxpayers approximately $12,500,000, was regarded by many as exceeding in callousness the government's brutality in causing the immediate dismissal of all the workmen."  Calling an end to a nearly completed aircraft effectively wasted the millions invested in the development of a product that would not be sold.

In fairness to the Prime Minister, Diefenbaker had relied on the fact that under the contract, the government was liable for approximately three weeks' severance pay. To a growing country like Canada, that puts high pressure on both the P.M. and the country. Alongside the three weeks of severance pay, the country also had to spend over $50,000,000 to cushion the impact on the economy and the unemployed due to the cancellation.  Speaking to the C.B.C. Pm. Diefenbaker justified: "It was a beautiful aircraft…[but] I had to make, in the finality, that decision […]. When one's faced with a problem like this, there is a higher source of strength. If one doesn't have that […] strength, he can never bear the attacks made on him […]. I knew that a great industry that had been established would be weakened. But it was right to end it." As Diefenbaker said, the "great" industry was inevitably weakened and in the following years

The decision was a disaster for Canada’s aerospace industry. Avro had recruited world-class engineers, craftsmen and material suppliers to build the Arrow at its facility in Malton, Ontario. This highly skilled team was laid off and broke up. Many brilliant engineers lost faith in the Canadian government for its destruction of what they had worked on for so long. Some returned to Great Britain. Others migrated to opportunities in the U.S., where many found influential positions with NASA. They played critical roles in the space program’s greatest achievements over the next 25 years. 

Jim Chamberlin, a native of Kamloops, British Columbia, was chief of technical design and aerodynamics for the Arrow. After joining NASA, he had a hand in all its projects, playing a vital role in the final design of John Glenn's Mercury capsule and directing the multi-million-dollar Gemini project. A genius who could have led Canadian aerospace development instead contributed his talents to NASA. In his book The Avro Arrow, Palmiro Campagna wrote, "The anger caused by this ‘brain drain’ and the frustration regarding the potential for loss of developing technological industries in Canada helps explain why the Arrow's legacy has endured as a subject of passionate interest over the years." No data exists to tell us where the 25,000 workers went, but according to individual accounts they had limited options back then. 

The destruction of the Arrow was accompanied by destruction of records of the project, causing controversy among the public. In his journal analyzing the cancellation, George Bindon stated:" Yet indications are that the time-lag imposed by current secrecy practices will mean that we will have to wait thirty years for historians to discover that little had been learned from the Arrow debacle of, by then, a half-century past." Designs were preserved, but many papers regarding political and military matters were allegedly destroyed or remained top secret. Without the documents, Canadians can’t know the full truth about why a highly advanced aircraft would be destroyed. Some have speculated that there must have been little to no value in the design and test results if everything about the program was ordered physically destroyed. Theories remain about design flaws, politics and improper personal influence, but these cannot be confirmed or dispelled as long as the historical record is obscured.

The decline of the Canadian aerospace program allowed its southern neighbor to dominate the field. E. Kay Shaw was one of the 15,000 Avro employees that were laid off. He wrote the first draft of his book There Never was an Arrow in the two months after the cancellation. His anger about it is apparent throughout the book, as well as his sense of loss. He wrote: "[...] but we scoff at ‘prestige’ and humbly beg the Americans to give us a few crumbs from their huge defense larder since we have none of our own."

Diefenbaker soon had his government negotiating for the acquisition of American-designed fighters, namely F-101A Voodoos and 104 Starfighters. Along with colossal expenditures for last-generation interceptors, Canada also opted into the Bomarc program, a developing American surface-to-air missile system. Palmiro stated in his book Requiem for a Giant Pm. Diefenbaker proposed that the country should discard the Arrow and rely upon Bomarc missiles backed up by the much older CF-100 aircraft. Based on these contracts to the U.S., Canada had little to no control over its supply of weaponry and aircraft. Since the Bomarc was still a developing system, the first few orders did not meet standards and were believed to be test products or defective. Although subsequent missiles improved, the relationship made Canada dependent on American supply and put it in a position of "bowing down" to American air superiority. The cost of the Voodoo and Bomarc purchases amounted to more than that of the Arrow program, which has endured as one of the strongest arguments against the Diefenbaker government’s decision.

Canada's aerospace industry has waned in the decades since. More than two-thirds of its military aircraft fleet is imported from the U.S. or U.K. Historians believe that development of new aircraft was hobbled by the cancellation of the Arrow, a reversal of a trend that looked promising up until that point. The book The Avro Arrow states: "During the Second World War, Britain looked to Canada for assistance in providing Lancaster bombers. The National Steel Car plant in Malton, Ontario, was chosen to manufacture those bombers, as it was already building aircraft parts."

The Avro Lancaster and Manchester Bombers, Airspeed Horsa gliders and Oxford fighters were well-known for their Canadian origin. Although British firms funded them, it was Canadians who built them. Much of British aerospace development was done in Canada, like training new pilots during the Second World War. Many believe that the role of Canada in military equipment development today is greatly decreased due to the Arrow decision.

In conclusion, the cancellation created immense economic pressure, affected the confidence of Canada’s citizens and aerospace professionals and reduced the country’s standing in the world’s military hierarchy. While some historians argue that the cancellation prevented more considerable losses, the scuttling of a nearly developed supersonic interceptor was irrational and unnecessarily damaging. We might never know the real reason Diefenbaker’s government cancelled the project, but the significance of this aircraft to Canadians is indisputable. Throughout the process of constructing this essay, the research presented many novel standpoints and shocking data. Upon concluding this essay, the theory of "more harm than good" stands for itself.