The first of six Arrows produced on the near production ready Avro Canada assembly line in Malton, Ontario in the late 1950s. (image: Avro Canada)

The Arrow

The path not taken 60 years ago has a nation still wondering what might have been.

On February 19th, 1959 Wladyslaw “Spud” Potocki was test flying the sparkling white Avro Arrow RL-201 in the fair but chilly skies near Malton, Ontario. On that particular flight the World War II veteran fighter pilot was testing the Arrow’s roll rates at Mach 1.7. While fast, it was still well below the nearly twice the speed-of-sound the sharp, delta-wing aircraft had already achieved on previous test flights. As aeronautical engineers like to say, the Arrow had ‘flown off the drawing board’. The celestial expectations for the all new, Canadian designed and built supersonic interceptor were being met or exceeded with each passing day.

Aloft for just 50 minutes that day, Potocki would have made a routine approach to the Malton Airport, landed, pulled off the runway and taxied to the Avro Canada facility. He would have set the brakes and shut down the twin jet engines as the ground crew slid the wheel chocks into place. The engines would crackle as they cooled. He would have made some notes in his log book about this, just the 66th flight of the rigorous Arrow test program. He may have sat for a moment to contemplate the long, gruelling hours of test flying yet to come while secretly relishing he was one of just four pilots who had flown one of the five Arrows already in the air. Finally, he would have stepped down from the massive aircraft and perhaps stood back and admired its graceful form for a moment.

However, as Spud Potocki walked away from RL-201, it’s likely there was one thing he was not thinking about: that this flight of the Arrow was to be the very last. Within weeks it was being blowtorched into small pieces and hauled away for scrap.

Avro Canada was the direct descendent of the Victory Aircraft company which had built licensed versions of British aircraft like the Hawker Hurricane and the Avro Lancaster during World War II. Located in Malton, Ontario, Victory was owned by the Canadian government which, once the war was over in 1945, immediately terminated Victory’s obviously-no-longer-required manufacturing operations. Seemingly with the intention of retaining an independent Canadian aircraft design and manufacturing capability in the post war period, Victory Aircraft was sold to the Hawker Siddeley group in the United Kingdom. The agreement called for the Victory Aircraft assets to be incorporated into Hawker’s A.V. Roe Canada subsidiary and retained in Canada. Thus, the newly renamed Avro Canada was born, along with the nascent Canadian aerospace industry ready to handle the Cold War challenges ahead.

In 1946, Avro Canada was put to work designing the CF-100 Canuck, a first generation, jet-powered, all-weather interceptor to address the vastly different geopolitical landscape after the war. The Canuck first flew in 1950 and initially entered service in 1953. Jet aircraft design was still in its infancy, and it took the better part of five years to get the new aircraft fully proven out. From 1955 onward, however, the Canuck went on to considerable success. There were over 600 produced and the last of the venerable aircraft were only finally retired in 1981.

In April of 1953, even before the Canuck was fully in service, the Royal Canadian Air Force issued the obscurely named Specification AIR 7–3. This document detailed the RCAF’s requirements for an entirely new aircraft to replace the Canuck. This new design was to counter the growing threat from steadily more capable Soviet strategic bombers coming over the North Pole, overflying Canada and eventually delivering their nuclear payloads to points south. The grave nature of the times dictated a rapid response to the new requirement. The Russians were coming and aircraft to repel them had to be in the air as soon as possible. Canada’s expansive geography in betwixt and between the two great Cold Warriors guaranteed at least the first response to mutually assured destruction would be a Canadian one.

There was just one problem. The specifications outlined in AIR 7–3 could not be met by any aircraft either in production or in the late stages of development anywhere in the world. Only entirely new aircraft need apply.

Avro Canada immediately began design studies for an aircraft capable of meeting the seemingly impossible RCAF requirement. It was an act of extreme hubris in the face of more fully resourced military aircraft development in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. As if by magic, though, Avro Canada came up with the basic design which met the specification and would eventually become the Arrow. To meet the brutal production deadline set out by the RCAF, Avro Canada went even further and proposed they would design and build both the aircraft and its assembly line at the same time. This would save the time and cost necessary to produce and test bespoke, hand-built prototypes.

This was a big risk. If the Arrow design predictions didn’t pan out then both the aircraft and the assembly line would have to be either heavily modified or scrapped and started all over again. Whatever time and money saved would immediately be lost in spades. Avro Canada was betting the company their world class aeronautical engineers would get it right the first time. On the 4th of October, 1957, just a little over four years after AIR 7–3 was issued, the first of the production-quality Arrows was rolled out to an excited audience of 13,000.

In what was either confirmation of the urgency of getting the Arrow flying, or just the first hint of its star-crossed future, the first public appearance of the Arrow was on precisely the same day the Soviets launched their Sputnik satellite into orbit. As it flew overhead, some in the rollout audience may well have thought the day of sophisticated, supersonic aircraft intercepting heavy bombers coming over the Pole had already passed.

For now, however, Avro Canada had gambled and won at least their first big bet. The initial flights of the Arrow quickly confirmed all of the design predictions. It was a remarkably capable aircraft well up to the tasks for which it was designed.

John Diefenbaker was elected Prime Minister of Canada in June of 1957. While the Progressive Conservative Party he lead won the most seats, they were not in the majority and therefore vulnerable to being toppled from power. By 1958, a sharp economic recession was well underway. It started in the US—the so-called Eisenhower Recession—and it rapidly spread through many economies in the West. While the sharpest part of the economic decline only lasted eight months there were years of modest recovery ahead. It ended up being the worst recession in the post war boom period running from 1945 through to the early 1970s.

With the economy in rapid decline the parsimonious Diefenbaker saw an opportunity to consolidate his hold on power through a snap election which was held less than a year later. Diefenbaker’s timing was perfect: he parlayed his hand into a landslide victory and an overwhelming, bulletproof mandate to run the country for at least the next four years. These promised to be very challenging economic times and Diefenbaker seemed to be the right man for the job. Hard decisions would have to be made and Diefenbaker’s massive parliamentary majority enabled him to make them.

As it turns out, though, the timing of these events simply could not have been worse for the Arrow. Without a robust recovery on the horizon it would have been a simple decision to take a big, expensive, high profile program like the Arrow and get rid of it in a big, showy flourish. Diefenbaker saw his opportunity to kill it early in his mandate, leaving years for the public to hopefully forget the unhappy episode before the next election. Diefenbaker pulled the trigger on February 20th, 1959—‘Black Friday’ as it came to be known by Avro Canada workers.

In fact, Canada really could afford the Arrow but only at the cost of other military spending programs. Some of Diefenbaker’s closest advisors felt the high cost of the Arrow would siphon off resources from the Canadian Army and Navy. Diefenbaker didn’t realize it but he was betting on Canada’s past instead of its future. The era of dreadnoughts slugging it out on the high seas, or great armies waging well organized battles theorized at the military academy would have made rheumy eyes even rheumier. But those days were already gone forever. The future was in the sky and beyond.

In the midst of this, Diefenbaker was forced to endure the humiliation of being told by North American Air Defence (NORAD) that without the promise of the Arrow at least somewhere in the future, Canada would have to do something to fulfill its commitments to defending the northern perimeter of the continent. In effect, Diefenbaker was told the US Air Force just happened to have, by happy coincidence, six squadrons of their F-101 Voodoo jets for sale — only slightly used. They were subsequently foisted on Canada in 1961 to fill the void left by the cancelled Arrow. Ironically, one argument for scrapping it was the belief the era of manned, military aircraft was over. Regardless, Canada was forced to buy someone else’s castoffs which were arguably less capable than the Arrow they replaced.

Guided missiles, without a pilot of course, were seemingly the future: either to shoot down the also-soon-to-be-obsolete strategic bombers or to deliver the nuclear payload directly to its target. For the former, the US Air Force also had a solution: the Boeing Bomarc anti-aircraft missile. These were also more-or-less forced on Canada as part of the 1957 NORAD agreement. An ugly spat ensued over whether these would be nuclear-tipped or non-nuclear ordnance. Canadians were deeply divided on whether Canada should be a member of the nuclear club, and some historians credit the Bomarc ruckus with further hastening the end of the Diefenbaker era.

In 1962 , Diefenbaker was once again relegated to minority government by an electorate growing weary of high unemployment and other economic difficulties. It also seems at least some of the voters had not yet forgotten the Arrow, nor would they. In yet another election in April of 1963, the Conservative government was defeated and Diefenbaker was gone.

Stories circulated of recruiters from American and European aerospace companies being in Toronto the day after Black Friday, ready to scoop up as many of the Avro Canada workers as they could. Why wouldn’t the recruiters have been there? Aerospace was seen as an industry of the future and the thought of being able to hire experienced engineers by the dozen would have been a temptation too great to resist.

Assuming those stories were true and given the suddenness of the announcement, how would anybody have known to descend on the Out door at Avro Canada that day? Who might have tipped them off? There are two intriguing possibilities:

If it was Avro Canada themselves, it could easily be interpreted as an innocent goodwill gesture to ensure the period of unemployment of their former, loyal workers was as short as possible if there was one at all. These were tough economic times, after all. However, it also means that management seemed to know the precipitous moment was coming.

On the other hand, conspiracy theorists will love the idea it was the US military doing the tipping off. Having contributed to pressuring the Canadian government to abandon a highly competitive offering in a small but lucrative market for jet fighters, why not reap the windfall of all that expertise being in one place at one time and coincidentally looking for a job?

Even if that theory is fanciful, the resulting brain drain was all too real. Look at any significant aerospace program in the 1960s onwards — including the program which would eventually land man on the moon — and you will find amongst their leaders and best engineers a disproportionately high number with ‘formerly of Avro Canada’ on their resume. The legacy of accomplishment of Avro Canada diaspora is a persistent, abrasive reminder of what might have been if they remained together.

The Arrow wasn’t so much cancelled as it was obliterated with extreme prejudice. Within a few weeks of Black Friday, the order mysteriously came down to completely destroy everything related to the Arrow program: the six completed airframes, all the drawings and blueprints, all the technical documentation and also the near production ready assembly line and tooling on which it was planned to build hundreds of Arrows in the years to follow. The entire Arrow program was quickly made an irreproducible, distant and painfully sad memory from which Canada and many Canadians never fully recovered.

It is an enduring mystery as to why there was a not-entirely-successful attempt to scour the Arrow from history.

While there are many theories the one which makes the most sense, if it actually turned out to be true, was a Russian mole infiltrated the program and was either already funnelling secrets to Moscow or at least had that capability. This was the Cold War after all and Canadians should be proud we once had something the Russians thought was worth stealing. Destroying all the assets would have been an effective way of dealing with that assuming it had not all been microfilmed beforehand, of course. Fertile imaginations can see some faint echoes of the Arrow in later Russian designs.

Like a punch line which pops to mind 20 seconds after the setup — and therefore quite useless because it simply makes the teller look slow witted — it may be Diefenbaker regretted the Arrow decision 20 seconds after he made it, although he never admitted as much during his lifetime. Perhaps he really didn’t think Avro Canada would lay off all 14,000 employees on the very day of the announcement. Or perhaps Avro Canada thought if it did, the Government would blink, rescind the order and the Avro Canada managers could then broadcast a gloating “never mind” over the same factory loudspeakers on which they had just announced the plant closure. Once it was apparent that was not going to happen there are two possible rationales for torching the Arrow: for the Government, to remove all traces of the Arrow and all it represented. Like it never happened. For Avro Canada and its flamboyant management, it may have been just pure spite.

The most tantalizing clue comes from an obscure departmental memo from March of 1959. In it, Hugh Campbell, then Canada’s Chief of Air Staff addresses the matter of what to do with the residue of the Arrow program. He outlines two possibilities in chilling, banal, bureaucratic language: “[d]eclaring as surplus material to Crown Assets Disposal agency. This course is not recommended for the reason…[it] could lead to subsequent embarrassment…airframe and engine could conceivably be placed on public view or even, in fact, used as a roadside stand.” Campbell then outlines the second alternative with even more terse and obscure language: “[r]elinguish…any DND interest in the airframes and engines to DDP for ultimate disposal by that agency. In this case DDP can reduce it to scrap. This course is recommended.”

So in the end it may not have been anything more sinister than wanting to avoid what was once a national dream winding up as a dowdy roadside attraction where the elements would eventually take their toll: render the windows milky and opaque, turn the once gleaming paint chalky and leave the gawking tourists to simply ask “why?” Or worse, “what if?”

With Canada’s reputation burnished by its disproportionate contribution to the Allied victory in World War II, Canadians returning from service along with those who supported them at plants like Victory Aircraft could easily be forgiven some very un-Canadian pride, self-confidence and maybe even a little arrogance. There must have been a real sense of being able to accomplish anything if Canadians’ sharp minds and collective efforts were put to it.

Quickly transitioning their prop-powered, way-less-than-supersonic design skills to creating one of the first jet fighters in the world could only have added to the belief of just about anything being achievable. So when the RCAF asked Avro Canada to do what even those writing the requirements might have thought was impossible, they just went ahead and did it. Of course we can design and build a state-of-the-art supersonic fighter which will be in service around the world for decades to come. What would make you think we couldn’t?

Re-litigating the merits of the Arrow, or its cancellation for that matter, is pointless. Ultimately much of the story, on both sides, was driven by a toxic combination of short term political and economic thinking combined with incredibly bad luck. However the perplexing, unanswerable question is “where might the Arrow have led us?” We will never know.

Jan Zurakowski, another World War II veteran who was actually the first to fly the Arrow, was quoted later in life as saying “[w]hen the Arrow was being built, the war had ended and everybody was hopeful in this country.” He went on to say “the destruction of the Arrow was the end of optimism in Canada.”

Jan Zurukowski had managed to succinctly sum up the lingering tragedy of the Arrow which is still felt to this day. After the Arrow, we as Canadians lost the ability to dream really big dreams and believe ourselves capable of accomplishing just about anything.

©2019 Terence C. Gannon

Thank you so much for reading. Although I have made every effort to ensure accuracy of all facts, I would love to hear from you if I have somehow missed something or have it wrong. Please leave a comment below and I’ll see it is promptly corrected.

You can also listen to this essay an episode on the Not There Yet podcast, read by the author and accompanied by additional audio artifacts.

Not There Yet.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store