Have you heard of the Avro Arrow?
The Avro Arrow was a fighter jet created by Avro Aircraft for the use of the Canadian air force. However it was a plan that never took off. Get it? Planes? Take off? Baw ha ha. Anyway.
More accurately called the CF-105 Arrow, and also more accurately referred to as an interceptor aircraft, designed specifically to prevent missions of enemy aircraft. However this role is largely obsolete these days as modern jets are already fast enough and other weaponry like surface-to-air missiles provide better defence.
But the big question is the fate of the Arrow. Not long after the 1958 start of its flight test program, the development of the Arrow (including its Orenda Iroquois jet engines) was abruptly and controversially halted before the project review had taken place, sparking a long and bitter political debate and many conspiracy theories.
We should provide some context as to why this particular jet was so important in the first place. The Arrow was one of the fastest jets ever built. During the 1950’s the Arrow was achieving speeds of mach 2, which for the time, made the Arrow one of the fastest jets ever.
Aviation experts were pretty amazed by the Arrow, and rightly so, it was sleek, fast, and a technological marvel. Obviously with all the excitement going around about the Arrow, Canadians were feeling a lot of pride at this new creation.
Why did Canada need such fast weapons? Well, keep in mind this was during the cold war and the USSR was right across the North Pole from Canada. Also in 1954 the USSR unveiled their long range Tupolev bombers, which worried a lot of Canadians. Back in those days the big concern was nuclear war. And part of the arms race was not just about building new and more powerful nuclear bombs but also developing a delivery system for those bombs.
Consider how far apart Russia and the US were. Launching missiles back and forth over the oceans and continents wasn’t exactly pragmatic. So of course they would need jets and boats and everything in between to get those bombs to their targets. Building jets that had the ability to fly higher and faster and farther meant that a nation had a much greater ability to deliver its nuclear weapons. And when the USSR developed long range bombers, something needed to be done.
The Royal Canadian Air Force believed they needed 600 fast jets to defend the north from the Soviets. Thus, the Arrow was built.
The Arrow also had some pretty cutting edge design, notably the delta-wings which allowed for more room for fuel and weapons while at the same time providing the same quality of speed and altitude.
The downside was that the Arrow was enormously expensive. The initial cost which was green lit by the St. Laurent Liberals was 190 million for 29 Arrows. Of course as Avro started to improve the design the cost went up, by the time Diefenbaker and the Conservatives took office, the Arrow was looking to cost about $12 million each. So if the government was going to purchase 600 Arrows, as the air force requested, the total price tag would have been around 7 billion and change.
Whereas purchasing an American jet that was comparable to the Arrow would have cost about 1/6th as much.
On February 20th 1959, the Arrow was canceled. The reasons being there was a recession and the cost of building the Arrow couldn’t be justified without foreign interest, so controversially, the program was scrapped. Nearly 30,000 employees of Avro were put out of work by the decision and the plans and blue prints were destroyed.
And that was the end of the story.
Or was it?
Enter the conspiracies.
There seems to be about 3 main conspiracies out there:
- Diefenbaker was in cahoots with the American Military complex and cancelled the Arrow because the jet threatened American dominance of jets or something.
- American politicians put pressure on Diefenbaker to cancel the Arrow and he caved to their pressure.
- Diefenbaker had a personal vendetta against the Arrow and those who made it and canceled it out of spite.
You’ll notice something similar about the conspiracies:
They all seem to focus on Diefenbaker – notice how he’s either a schemer, a push over, or petty. We should keep this in mind as we know that Diefenbaker was a rather unpopular Prime Minister, and he had just defeated the Liberals in an election and was under the microscope from a skeptical public.
But moving on, could any of these theories be true? They could, it’s not like they involve aliens or bigfoot or something. But are any of these likely? Well, not really. Let’s take a close look at the conspiracies.
1) Diefenbaker was in cahoots with the American military – part of this theory comes from the idea that after canceling the Arrow, Dief allowed the Americans to build Bomarc and SAGE (Semi-Automatic-Ground-Environment) installations in Canada. And this also led to Canada getting (more permanent) Nuclear weapons. And of course NORAD.
The idea of Dief in cahoots with Americans is rather silly. He was known as being somewhat anti-American. He wanted to shift trade from America to Britain, which was one of his more contentious political ambitions. And while he did have a friendly relationship with American President Dwight Eisenhower, a deal of that was probably motivated by their similar farm boy upbringing. But there was very little to suggest that Dief would be a friend to American industry and business.
This theory also places all the blame on Dief and ignores some serious facts of the world. During this time, the superpowers were racing to develop ICBM’s (Inter-Continental-Ballistic-Missiles) which would make bombers obsolete. As well as interceptors since the missiles were too small and fast for jets to catch them. Thus, NORAD and such military alliances were mostly reasonable things for Dief to consider.
2) American politicians put pressure on Diefenbaker to cancel the Arrow? The Americans were also developing interceptors like the Arrow. The idea being that the Arrow was a threat to the American built jets and if developed would put pressure on the American control of the industry.
This ignores the fact that the Americans considered purchasing the Arrow but a simple cost-benefit analysis showed that they could build their own jets for less money. And this wasn’t unique to America. Britain and France both came to this conclusion independently. Combined with the change of technology mentioned earlier, the Americans probably realized that Interceptors weren’t worth the time and resources.
This also seems to imply that the Americans wanted Canada to be less militarily developed. However the Americans gained very little from such a scenario. With NORAD they would basically be defending two countries instead of one, how does that benefit America?
It also seems to place a lot guilt on the military industrial complex, which at this point in history was actually just beginning. There really wasn’t a complex in place yet for American politicians to protect.
3) Diefenbaker had a personal vendetta against the Arrow? Dief was known to be a rather grumpy person and difficult to get along with. There are reports of him having heated meetings with Crawford Gordon, the head of Avro. Could this be true?
It’s certainly possible that Dief didn’t like Avro. But to suggest that the reason he canceled the Arrow was because of this also ignores some important facts. First, it was actually the Liberals who first considered canceling the Arrow, however before they could there was an election which they lost. Also the cancelation wasn’t a surprise. The Conservatives sent several warnings to Avro that the program would be scrapped.
When the Arrow was canceled, Avro fired its workers the same day. Avro blamed Diefenbaker for the firings and then re-hired about 2500 employees to finish other projects.
It was Avro who fired employees, not the government, putting the blame on Dief isn’t really accurate, especially when the Arrow as already considered a cost over-run by the previous government and had been issued warnings before cancelation. It’s also fair game to put more the blame on Avro as well. Prior to gaining the military contract to build the Arrows, Avro had been heavily involved in civilian and commercial industry, but they switched all their focus to military and when they lost the Arrow they had nothing as a company to fall back on.
There are some bonus conspiracies to go along with ones I mentioned: After the Arrow as cancelled, all the plans and blue prints were destroyed. This has led some to infer that the conspiracies about Dief were true, why destroy the plans unless there was some conspiracy with America to snuff the Arrow?
The most reasonable conclusion was that they were worried about Soviet espionage. This may seem rather “extraordinary” to us now, but given the historic context, the cold war and fear of spies, it made a lot of sense.
Were all the Arrows destroyed? One theory suggests that one of the Arrows was kept hidden. The rumours that an Arrow got away started the day of the cancellation. Some people reported hearing the Arrow with its Iroquois engine taking off. Others said that one night Avro was cordoned off and several covered flatbed trucks were seen leaving the plant. One source of the rumors has to do with the photos of the destruction. In one overhead shots of the Avro building, one can see five Arrows with one partially disassembled. In the side view, you see the same partially disassembled Arrow in the foreground but one Arrow is missing from the photo. Did it escape or was it simply in the hangar?
In Dec of 2011 an ejection seat was discovered in the UK and confirmed to have belonged to an Arrow. How did it get there? There is speculation that Air Marshal W.A. Curtis spirited away in an Arrow before it could be destroyed. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen. He did imply in an interview with the Toronto Star in 1968 that if he had stolen one, he wouldn’t admit to it, stating when asked “I don’t want to talk about that.”
Perhaps adding insult to injury, when the Arrow was canceled, a blow was struck to the Canadian aerospace industry that it never recovered from. Many of the engineers and scientists who were fired by Avro were immediately hired by NASA. This has led many to believe that the team of Avro scientists were also anticipating a Canadian Space Program and building a ship to go to the moon. However there is no evidence for such plans and the idea can probably be attributed to a fictional movie about the Arrow produced by the CBC.
The loss of the Arrow was an unfortunate turn of events for Canadian military pride, and the media of the time ran with it all the way to the bank. The outcry was so out of proportion and especially when you consider that given the circumstances, the Arrow as destined to be canceled, it just so happened that the government who did was Diefenbaker and the Conservatives.
Canada: From Empire to Umpire, Hillmer and Granatstein.