In this final instalment of my three-part series on Canada’s Avro Arrow, I will look at the cancellation and fallout from the project’s termination, including its effect locally.
In a future column, I will look at some of the many conspiracies that surrounded its demise. After all, no piece of history is immune to a good re-examination with the ensuing set of conspiracy theories.
Let us get started with what we know.
Prime minister John Diefenbaker and his government unexpectedly terminated the Avro Arrow project on Feb. 20, 1959, known as Black Friday, before the Arrow could enter Canadian military service. This cancellation sparked outrage among Canadians.
Overnight, more than 14,500 people, many of them highly skilled, lost their jobs. Cancelling the Arrow program also instantly put out of work another 15,000 workers employed by the program’s 650 subcontractors.
A large number of families had moved into our area — in Newmarket, it was East Gwillimbury Heights — at the outset of the project. The cancellation saw families leaving the area virtually overnight for jobs elsewhere in the world (NASA in the States, and various European Aeronautic Agencies). Houses were simply left empty, banks left to put homes up for resale.
By July 1959, all aircraft had been cut apart with blowtorches, while blueprints, models, designs and the machines used to make the planes had been destroyed. Scraps were sold to a Hamilton junk dealer for 6.5¢ per pound. Job losses would grow to at least 25,000 at the time of Avro’s dissolution in 1962.
In the years that followed the Arrow’s cancellation, Diefenbaker remained defiant of his critics, labelling it a necessary act.
The prime minister would say this about his decision:
“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.”
In June 1957, Canadians had ended 22 years of Liberal rule by electing a minority Progressive Conservative government determined to cut federal spending.
Some think that the Arrow’s high costs contributed to its downfall. With a total cost of $1.1 billion, the Arrow program was very expensive for a country of Canada’s size. But its technology was another concern. The Army’s chief of the general staff, lieutenant-general Guy Simonds, was among those who thought that it was already outdated. The prevailing view was that the future was about land-based missile systems not interceptors.
In a memo dated March 26, 1959, RCAF air marshall Hugh Campbell recommended to the defence minister that all Arrow airframes, engines, engineering and test data be reduced to scrap for security reasons.
With five pre-production aircraft successfully flying, 32 others in various stages of assembly and Mark II Arrow 206 being readied for taxi trials with the Iroquois engine, the project was abruptly terminated.
That same afternoon, A.V. Roe Canada Limited was told to cease and desist on all work related to the Arrow and its Iroquois engine, including all subcontracts. Some 14,000 employees who had been working at Avro and Orenda were ordered to drop tools and leave the premises.
The cancellation of the Arrow was intimately connected with Canada’s adoption of the CIM-10 Bomarc surface-to-air missile system resulting from the 1957 NORAD agreement with the United States.
Over the ensuing decade, anti-nuclear sentiment within Canada would dominate public opinion, leading ultimately to our withdrawal from any nuclear roles and the Bomarc system was shut down.
It is worth noting the total cost of the Voodoo and Bomarc purchases amounted to more than the entire cost of the Arrow program.
Avro’s end was fast and tragic following the Arrow’s termination. In April 1962, its parent company Hawker Siddeley Group dissolved Avro, selling its assets for $15.6 million.
It is interesting to note that apparently Canada had tried to sell the Arrow to the U.S. and to Britain, but no agreements were ever concluded.
What happened to the resulting technology from the Arrow’s world-class research team? One can still see parts of the Arrow today in various locations.
Pieces of the original Arrow, along with models and replicas, can be found in various Canadian museums. The Canadian Air and Space Conservancy in Edenvale, Ontario has a full-size replica of the plane, while the Avro Museum outside Calgary built a flying replica. One of the largest surviving pieces of the Arrow — a nose section marked with the words Cut Here beside a jagged blowtorch line — remains on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.
Blueprints of the Arrow, which were thought to have been destroyed in 1959, were put on display at the Diefenbaker Canada Centre in 2020. The original blueprints were conserved in the home of Ken Barnes, a senior draftsman for A.V. Roe (Avro) Canada.
Of the significant pieces that remain, there is the cockpit section of Arrow 206, some wing sections, and an Iroquois engine, all housed at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa. Other parts, pieces, test reports and blueprints have also turned up
over the years, including additional Iroquois engines which escaped the destruction.
In September 2017, a group of historians, scientists, archeologists, and business people would discover an arrow-shaped object in Lake Ontario around Prince Edward County. Using underwater sonar equipment, they would recover the object from the lake, but it would turn out to be a smaller, earlier test device.
The hunt for the Arrow’s test models and other artifacts continues to this day and once they are found, they will be housed in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa and National Air Force Museum of Canada in Trenton.
Following the cancellation of the Avro Arrow project, CF-105 chief aerodynamicist Jim Chamberlin led a team of 25 engineers from Avro to the NASA's Space Task Group to become lead engineers, program managers and heads of engineering in NASA's manned space programs such as the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.
The Space Task Group team would eventually grow to 32 former Avro engineers and technicians, becoming emblematic of a huge "brain drain" to the U.S.
The Soviets had taken a keen interest in the Arrow. In October 1958, a team of Soviet scientists and aircraft designers visited the Avro plant near Toronto. Ironically, when the project was cancelled, one of the reasons given for its suspension was that information about the plane’s design might leak to the communists. Authorities believed there had even been at least one Soviet mole operating within Avro.
Once the project was scratched, Canada’s aspirations to be a leader in military aviation and technology were dashed. Many still believe the Arrow’s cancellation was a betrayal of Canada’s aerospace industry.
Others assert the jet was extravagant and had little chance of competing with impending innovations. There is little doubt that the Arrow was an historic example of Canadian ingenuity and a story of unrealized potential.
Sources: Avro Arrow Article by Barry Jordan Chong and Jessica Poulin; The Avro Arrow: For the Record by Palmiro Campagna; Canada Aviation and Space Museum. “Avro Canada CF 105 Arrow 2; The Record-Breaking Jet Which Still Haunts a Country by Mark Piesing BBC; The Origin of the Cancellation of Canada’s Avro CF-105 Arrow Fighter Program: A Failure of Strategy.” By Donald Story and Russell Isinger. Journal of Strategic Studies 30, no.6.; Library and Archives Canada (official repository of most government documents relating to the Avro CF-105 Arrow project); Remembering the Avro Arrow: A True Canadian Icon – Our Canada by Gordon Baron Aerospace Heritage Foundation of Canada Archives; Toronto Star and Newmarket Era archives; The Canadian Museum of Flight, Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow; Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft, by David Donald; One Canada: Memoirs of the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker by John G Diefenbaker
Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.