Rotary Toronto West was privileged to welcome professional engineer Sean Cragg to speak to us about the history of the Avro Arrow, one of Canada’s greatest aeronautics achievements.
Sean described the Arrow as setting the gold medal standard for its era. Initially designed in 1953 by A.V. Roe Canada, it took 4 years of work to bring it to roll-out status, which occurred on October 4, 1957. The period during which the Arrow was being designed, built, tested and launched constituted a “perfect storm” of design issues and politics. The original Rolls Royce engine proved to have problems so a new engine was designed by Orenda, with a 5:1 thrust ratio. This made it one of the most powerful engines for its time and enabled the plane to fly at speeds exceeding Mach 1.98.
Because the Arrow had an internal weapons pod that could be replaced in a modular way, the plane could easily be reconfigured for mission specifications in about 20 minutes. This was a new design feature that was considered advanced for its time and continues to be viewed as the benchmark for configurable layouts today.
The fifties were the time of the Cold War and in Canada, the leadership of Louis St. Laurent gave way to that of John Diefenbaker while the Avro Arrow program was underway. When the Russians launched Sputnik, concerns were high that it would make manned interceptors obsolete. This made the potential to sell the Arrow to allies such as the UK and the United States less likely, and since the complications of the design and production of the Arrow had vastly exceeded the original budget, Diefenbaker, supported by the joint chiefs of staff cancelled the program in 1959, claiming it was much too expensive to continue.
Behind the scenes though, the Diefenbaker government had an agenda to “kill” the Arrow from the time it assumed control. It was a costly project that had been initiated by the previous Liberal government led by Louis St. Laurent, and the company leading the project was helmed by Gordon Crawford Jr., a man with whom Diefenbaker could not relate on a personal level. When the launch of the Sputnik raised questions about the long term viability of manned interceptors like the Avro Arrow, the United States backed away from an earlier commitment to purchase some of them. When the US Airforce communicated its intention to back out of the deal, Diefenbaker didn’t fight it and used it as grounds for cancelling the program.
The planes that had been build were destroyed under the guise of national security – preventing precious technology from falling into Russian hands. The failure of the program was devastating for A. V. Roe and the aeronautics industry in Canada; thousands lost their jobs at the company, and thousands more lost jobs at allied companies which were part of the supply chain.
In 2017, two of nine models of the Arrow that were used to test design concepts were retrieved from Lake Ontario at a depth of 120 feet. Because of the cold and rocky bottom of the lake, the models were in good condition and provide a link to a high point in Canada’s past.