Feb. 20, 1959 was, in my estimate, one of Canada’s darkest hours. No one died, just an aircraft.
On that day, the Avro Arrow project at the A.V. Roe Aircraft Co. was terminated.
I remember the announcement and the extreme disappointment that it caused.
In my early teens at the time, we bragged about how fast that plane was going to be. Mach 2.5 – wow, we couldn’t even comprehend that speed.
That aircraft was conceived, designed, built and test flown in this country with a test Pratt and Whitney J75 engine.
It flew at just under Mach 2, “Still climbing and accelerating” beyond the end of the April 1958 speed test.
The Arrow never did fly with its proper PS13 Orenda Iroquois engine, which was 40 per cent more powerful than that test engine. They were virtually ready to fly on the termination day.
Fourteen thousand jobs were lost immediately and a further 15,000 within weeks, as suppliers went bankrupt.
All these years, I have wondered why. Others wondered also; some even wrote books.
I have read three on this subject, but the answers given never seemed satisfactory until the latest book, published in 1992.
In his book Storms of Controversy, author Palmiro Campagna had the advantage of access to formerly confidential Avro Arrow files.
This book should be damn near compulsory reading for Canadians, in order to understand at least the pressure that was brought to bear on the Diefenbaker government from south of the border.
For a number of reasons, the U.S. did not want the aircraft to succeed.
After the cancellation, the U.S. gains were totally immeasurable.
The Canadian losses were in the same category. The loss of that extreme cutting edge of high technology relegated Canadians back to the category of wood choppers and drawers of water for 30 years.
The brain drain of the Avro team flowed mainly to the U.S.A. and also to England; they wound up in top management positions in the U.S. aircraft companies.
The top 25 engineers, including Jim Chamberlin of Kamloops – the genus of Arrow – aerodynamics, went straight to NASA. Chamberlin was later described by one of NASA’s managers as “probably one of the most brilliant men ever to work fro NASA.”
The parts of a 2,000 piece puzzle have begun to fit into place. In a single move, Canada threw out a vast chunk of the future with a strong shove from the U.S.
This move 35 years ago has had strong repercussions through today.
If that aircraft had not been scrapped, we would have been exporting it and high technology manufacturing that we have had to purchase ever since.
What has this added to our huge deficit?
Time has proven that Arrow was also the correct defence weapon for the last half of this century.
Make no mistake about it, it was a superior aircraft. It embodied many firsts that are now found in the F117A Stealth fighter. The lists of firsts spawned at AVRO and developed elsewhere is lengthy.
If Canadians can learn one thing from this sordid piece of history, it is that we should never again allow ourselves to be intimidated by the U.S.