The Legend of the Arrow
by George Shaw
I worked at Avro Canada as a mechanical design engineer from early 1946 to mid 1960. This period covered the design and development of the Jetliner, the CF100 all weather fighter and the Arrow. Like many others involved in the disaster of Black Friday when the Arrow was cancelled, I found reasonably rewarding work elsewhere, but I never forgot the pleasure I had in working on these advanced and challenging aircraft designs.
Starting in the late seventies there have been a number of reunions commemorating various dates in the life of the Arrow. What surprised me was the number of people who showed up at these reunions. They included many people who had never worked at Avro or, in some cases, had not even been born when the Arrow was cancelled. In the decade of the eighties a large number of books and articles were published about the Arrow, usually praising the design and decrying the decision to cancel the project. Any attempt to denigrate the design drew a sharp response. It was obvious to me that the legend of the Arrow had become part of the Canadian mythology. The subject of this short paper is to try to explain why this is so.
The legend of the Arrow is the story of a near perfect machine, a supersonic aeroplane created by Canadian engineers, technicians and skilled workers only to be willfully destroyed by Canadian politicians in 1959. This destruction included not only the cancellation of the project, but also the destruction of all visible evidence that the aircraft had ever existed. After more than thirty years, the story of the Arrow has refused to die. One would expect the memory of the event to remain vivid in the minds of those who worked on the project, but there has been a surprisingly wide general interest as well. To date, there have been six non-fiction books, two fictional books, a play and dozens of articles written about the Arrow.(1) Most of this output has been in the past decade.
In spite of much research there are still mysteries surrounding the cancellation of the project and the destruction of all traces of the Arrow and its Iroquois engine. As time goes by, more and more information surfaces: politicians of the Diefenbaker era have written their memoirs; the thirty year time limit on the disclosure of Cabinet documents of the late fifties and early sixties has expired and the freedom of information rules are providing more documentation.
What information has been found supports some shrewd speculations, but what is now most interesting is why the legend persists and even grows with time. To solve this puzzle one has to attempt to answer two questions: was the aircraft as successful a design as the legend suggests? and how and why was the project cancelled? Answers to these two questions should go a long way in explaining why the legend has persisted and, in fact, grown.
Was the aircraft a successful design?
This question has two parts: was it a successful technical design and would it have been a success as a critical part of a weapons system?
The company that designed and built both the Arrow aircraft and the Iroquois engine was Avro Canada. During the war, a Canadian Crown Corporation, Victory Aircraft, produced the English Avro Lancaster bomber. The English firm, impressed with the Canadian performance, decided to start an operation under the name of Avro Canada in this plant after the war. This was not to be a branch plant in the sense that we understand them today. Avro Canada's mandate was to design, develop and manufacture new products. Since capital could not be taken out of England at that time, the operation was financed in Canada. Profits were plowed back into the Canadian firm and by the early fifties the firm had become a conglomerate and later went public in 1957. The aircraft operations were divisions called Avro Aircraft and Orenda Engines. By this time, all the personnel were either Canadian citizens or landed immigrants. In 1962, Avro Canada became Hawker Siddeley Canada and, although it has gone through some rough times, Hawker is still listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.(2)
Shortly after the second world war, the Canadian military searched for a fighter aircraft that would be suitable for home defence. At that time, the threat was considered to be from long range, high altitude bombers, probably coming in from over the Arctic. As a suitable aircraft could not be found, it was decided to have one designed and built by the new Canadian firm, Avro Canada. This aircraft, the CF100, was a twin engined, two seat, high altitude, all weather fighter. It had the added feature of a Canadian engine, the Orenda, also designed and built by Avro Canada. After some initial bugs were ironed out, this combination was a very successful design. 692 were built including 53 sold to Belgium. The CF100 saw service in Canada and in Europe with NATO, achieving a service life of thirty years.(3)
In the early fifties it was decided to follow the same process in ordering a replacement for the CF100, a new aircraft and engine, from the same source, Avro Canada. The target was to have it in service in the early sixties to meet the postulated threat at that time. This threat was assumed to be supersonic bombers coming in from the Arctic. The requirements were very stiff. The airborne weapon system was to operate either independently or as part of an integrated defence system. The aircraft was to cruise and combat at Mach 1.5 at an altitude of 50,000 feet and be capable of pulling 2g in maneuvers with no loss of speed or altitude. The high speed mission radius was to be at least 200 nautical miles. The time from a signal to start the engines to the aircraft's reaching an altitude of 50,000 feet and a speed of Mach 1.5 was to be less than five minutes. The turn around time on the ground was to be less than ten minutes. This included re- arming, refuelling and replenishing stores. The Arrow, along with a Canadian engine, the Iroquois, developed by Orenda Engines, was designed to more than meet these requirements. In flight tests with a lower powered American engine, the aircraft reached a speed in level flight of Mach 1.96.
For the uninitiated, a speed of Mach 1.0 means you are travelling at the speed of sound. Mach 1.5 is one and a half times the speed of sound and so on. To pull 2g in a maneuver means that the pilot's weight on the seat is twice what it would be in level flight, that is two times the pull of gravity.
In the process of meeting the requirements, a number of innovations such as a removable armament pack, were included in the design. This pack was within the aerodynamic shape of the aircraft, meaning that the type of armament carried had no effect on the aircraft speed.
A new approach was used with the design of the Arrow: there was no prototype. The first plane was built on production tooling. Before the aircraft flew, there was extensive testing of structures, systems and models along with detailed analysis using analog and digital computers. Some seventy hours of early flight testing on five aircraft proved the success of both the design and this procedure. While this approach increased costs early in the program, there were major savings later in both time and money. In man hours spent per pound of airframe the Arrow was an efficient design comparable to the best in the world.(4) Flight testing on five aircraft indicated the requirements could be met. The answer to the first part of the question is a very positive yes.(5)
The second part of the question is somewhat more difficult to answer, since the aircraft was never put into service. The Arrow was to be the delivery part of a weapons system intended to intercept and destroy a high speed bomber invading the northern part of North America. The total system included the aircraft, airborne fire control systems and weapons and a ground based radar and communication system. As we have seen, the aircraft met the requirements set for it. The fire control system started as a Hughes (American) system. This was switched to a Canadian design (Astra) and then reverted to the American system. The weapons followed the same path: first American weapons (the Falcon) then a Canadian design (the Velvet Glove or a modified Sparrow) and finally a reversion to the American weapons. All this chopping and changing was the RCAF's doing, not Avro's. The ground based radar and communications system became part of the Canadian/American North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) set up in 1957.
Whatever weapon the Arrow used was stored inside the interchangeable weapons pack. A system was devised that permitted launching these internally stored weapons fast enough so that the stability of the aircraft was not affected. This meant that a wide variety of weapons could be fired at any speed.
The primary role of the Arrow was as a high altitude, high speed interceptor. The secondary role was to do the same at low altitude. The aircraft could also carry bombs or reconnaissance equipment, all stored in the weapons pack. It is safe to say in answer to the second part of the question, that the Arrow would have been a success at delivering weapons.(6)
How and why was the project cancelled?
The cancellation was, of course, strictly a cabinet decision. We know from Erik Neilson's book, The House is not a Home, that there was no debate or discussion in caucus.(7) They were just told that the decision had been made. In recent years, personal reminiscences by some of Diefenbaker's cabinet ministers describe the sequence of events in the Diefenbaker Cabinet concerning the cancellation of the Arrow.
The Hon. Donald Fleming, Finance Minister in the Diefenbaker Cabinet, goes into considerable detail in his memoirs published in 1985.(8) It is apparent from these memoirs that Cabinet viewed the Arrow contract with concern in 1957, but because they were a minority government facing an election in the near future, Cabinet did not dare to cancel the Arrow then.(9) A big majority in the 1958 election cleared the way to cancel the project, but the Government still needed to create conditions that would make the cancellation palatable to the voting public. Cabinet was well aware that the loss of 25000 jobs (the number estimated to be directly related to the Arrow project) would have serious political and economic ramifications.
On August 28th, 1958 the Hon. George Pearkes, Minister of Defence, presented Cabinet with the Bomarc anti-aircraft missile proposal from the U.S. This was accepted as a viable substitute for the Arrow at a very much lower cost to Canada. At that time, Pearkes recommended the cancellation of the Arrow program.
In September of 1958, the A. V. Roe company was told by the government to reduce the costs of the program. The major saving was the cancelling of the Astra fire control system and replacing it with an American "off the shelf" system. They were also told at that time that the program was to be reviewed in March, 1959.
Sometime between the U.S. president's visit to Canada in July of 1958 and December of 1958, an agreement was reached with the U.S. that if the Arrow and its support systems were cancelled and Canada agreed to use U.S. equipment, there would be defence production sharing between Canada and the U.S. There is no indication of who initiated this agreement.(10)
Senior Canadian Cabinet Ministers attended an international meeting in Paris in mid December of 1958. During discussions at this meeting between the Canadians and the U.S. representatives, the U.S. refused to buy the Arrow. The question put by the Canadian delegation was "will you buy the aircraft", not "will you assist the Arrow project". The selection of which question to ask was critical since in the fall of 1958 an Avro executive had approached the U.S. defence department with the latter question and had received a commitment of assistance for the project. A Minister was informed, but Cabinet did not act on this nor did Fleming mention it in his memoirs.(11)
On December 22nd, 1958, Cabinet as a whole was notified of the U.S. refusal to buy the aircraft. It was agreed at this time that the cancellation and the defence production sharing agreement with the U.S. were to be announced together early in the new year. This action was delayed until February 20th, 1959 because of other problems. Prior to this date, there were no discussions or debates outside of Cabinet. The promised March, 1959 program review which implied some sort of public discussion, was conveniently avoided.
Fleming claimed it was the U.S. refusal to buy the aircraft in December that sealed the Arrow's fate, but the government must have known from the start that the U.S. would never make an off-shore purchase of an aircraft such as the Arrow. As was obvious to any intelligent observer at the time, the powerful U.S. aircraft industry would never have permitted this to happen. This raises the question: why did the Government wait until December of 1958 to formally ask the U.S. if they would buy the Arrow when they must have known for some time that the answer would be no?
It is obvious that the intent to cancel existed early in the Diefenbaker regime. All the Government needed was the right conditions to minimize the political damage. Acceptance of the Bomarc anti-aircraft missile as a cheap substitute for the Arrow along with the defence production sharing agreement with the U.S. provided the conditions the Government was looking for. The obvious conclusion is that the Government delayed asking the crucial question of the U.S. until the other conditions were in place, but asked it early enough so that the March review could be avoided. The government could also claim that no final decision had been made until this late date. Politically, December was a very convenient date.
Cabinet documents released under the thirty year rule, sparse as they are, generally confirm this sequence of events. The documents for 1958 reflect: Diefenbaker's anger with the A.V. Roe "lobby" which he claimed was intense (he commented that the government could not be seen as giving in to such a lobby); concern over the cost of the program; the refusal of the Americans to support the program; and the obsolescence of aircraft created by the ICBM.(12) In 1959 Diefenbaker's main concern was not with the death of the Arrow, but with how to break to the public the news of its death sentence.(13) The 1960 papers show a Diefenbaker agonizing over how to admit to the public that the government was considering buying a supersonic fighter, the CF101 Voodoo, from the U.S.(14) (NORAD was insisting that Canada find a supersonic replacement for the CF100)
Another cabinet minister, the Hon. Alvin Hamilton, in a letter to the press in 1989, repeats the story of the pressure from A. V. Roe, notes the Army and Navy opposition to the Arrow spending and notes the lack of support from outside Canada. He concludes that he was glad the government "fought hard to save the Arrow", but in the end did not give in to "blackmail".(15)
The Hon. John Diefenbaker in his memoirs One Canada: the Years of Achievement 1956 to 1962, does not even mention the Arrow cancellation.
Before the cancellation there was no equivalent to a defence "white paper" that examined Canada's military role and hardware needs and that would have allowed public debate. In fact, Fleming was proud of the fact that not one word of Cabinet's internal discussions was "leaked" before the government was ready to go public. One can appreciate the political expediency of this, but the morality of it is open to question. One price for this secrecy was to force some ministers to make statements that they must have known were not true. The silence on the part of the cabinet created a great deal of unease and uncertainty within A. V. Roe. Charles Grinier, VP of engineering at Orenda Engines, handed in his resignation in the fall of 1958 on the basis that with this air of uncertainty he could no longer hold his design team together. The Hon. Raymond O'Hurley, Minister of Defence Production, persuaded him to withdraw his resignation with the assurance that the program had not been cancelled.(16) A. V. Roe had been told on a number of occasions in 1958 that the pre-production order for 32 Mark 2 Arrows with the Iroquois engine was not in jeopardy.
The cancellation was made a fait accompli on Feb. 20th, 1959, by Diefenbaker's announcement in the House and the simultaneous notice to the company to cease all work. This action purposely left no room for a public debate. A number of reasons for the cancellation were given after the fact. With the Diefenbaker government's concerns about public relations, it is not surprising that a number of them are aimed at discrediting A. V. Roe and the aircraft. Even with the information available at the time, these "reasons" are not too difficult to refute. There were heated arguments, but no debates in the sense that the government was willing to change its mind. There were five major "reasons" given by the government:
Lacking any government defence policy that had been publicly debated to support the cancellation of the Arrow project, we are left with what amounts to an arbitrary act decided on by a handful of politicians, in secret, behind closed doors. Their decision allowed no debate by the party caucus, parliament or the general public. The decision was supported only by the highly questionable statements outlined above. This leaves the field wide open for speculation which has a high entertainment value, but cannot really prove anything. Several of the most popular speculations are worth a look.
All these speculations have a ring of truth to them, but they are just speculations. They form the basis for opinions, but they cannot prove anything.
The picture that emerges
Besides the government statements and the speculations, a number of other factors had a bearing on the cancellation. These should also be considered.
The media must take credit for making the cancellation easier for Diefenbaker to carry out. There appeared to be a campaign to downgrade Avro. A number of articles appeared claiming that the Arrow was unnecessary and painting Avro and its employees as a bunch of free-loaders feasting on the public purse. Two of the most effective in this regard, published in 1958/59, were Blair Fraser's article in Macleans and Pierre Burton's column in the Toronto Star. Avro's public relations department was not successful in countering this campaign or in selling the Arrow to the general public.
There was disagreement within the military with the Army and Navy upset that the Air Force was getting the major slice of the budget. This feud played right into Diefenbaker's hands. Again the lack of a publicly debated defence policy confused the issue.(41)
Another factor was the politicians' seemingly total lack of knowledge and appreciation of technology and of the profitable spin-offs possible from such a high-tech project. Few seemed to understand the extensive implications of what they were dealing with.
The picture that emerges from all of this is of a Cabinet that had decided on a course of action and then went about creating the conditions that would support this action. It is also the picture of a Cabinet worried enough about the political ramifications of their actions to avoid any real debate both before and after the event and to destroy any evidence that might come back to incriminate them in the future. Political expediency appears to have been the governing factor throughout. In spite of protestations, the facts belie any serious effort to save the Arrow.
This picture contains mysteries such as: When was the decision made to kill the Arrow and who made it? Why was no attempt made to cash in on the Arrow technology when the opportunity existed? Why was the Bomarc accepted without question as a substitute for the Arrow when its failure was predictable? Was a political debt to Quebec paid off? Who initiated the Defence Production Sharing Agreement with the U.S.? No matter how one looks at it, the cancellation and destruction of the Arrow was a very bizarre, and in many ways inexplicable, episode in Canadian history. No wonder the event has attracted so much attention!
The persistency of the legend.
It is understandable that the people who worked on the project should feel keenly about it. What is not so easy to appreciate is why so many who were not there or who have been born since then, should take such an interest in promoting and defending the Arrow legend.
The legend does have its detractors, but each attack on the Arrow legend has drawn a quick response from the legend's defenders. In the last few years there has been a number of such attacks. A writer of a standard school history text changed the reference to the Arrow from "a flawed piece of engineering" to "a marvel" after the error of his ways had been pointed out to him.(42) Another historian writing in a financial magazine, decried the Arrow program as too much for a small country such as Canada to tackle. His point was spoiled somewhat by the irony of the advertisement on the page opposite his article. It portrayed a Swedish Saab automobile beside the shadow of the company's supersonic fighter.(43) A university professor in Ottawa responded to Bomphrey's play about the legend of the Arrow by condemning the aircraft and labeling the designers as a bunch of incompetents.(44) He drew a very sharp response. By and large the critics have had little effect on the legend except perhaps to strengthen it.
The reasons the legend has persisted and grown over the years since the cancellation on Feb. 20th, 1959 (known as Black Friday) are not too complex. To start with, the basis for the legend is founded in fact: the Arrow was a successful design and its cancellation and destruction have a number of dark corners and possible villains. This makes fertile ground for legend building. The number of rather interesting speculations that cannot be proven or disproven also promotes the legend.
The Arrow affair puts the senior politicians of 1959 in a very bad light. This strikes a sympathetic chord in the large portion of the public today who hold the present senior politicians in low esteem. The reasons have not changed: lack of vision; intense partisan politics; lack of well defined policies; great ignorance of technology; and an inferiority complex about Canadian capabilities. All these are present in today's politicians as they were in the politicians of 1959, thus making the legend very believable and pertinent today.
But for perhaps the strongest reason the legend is popular to-day one must go back in history. During World War II, major advances were made in the industrialization of Canada, with the forced growth of local industries. After the war, there were great expectations that the goal of industrial independence could be achieved. The Arrow, with its proof of Canadians' capabilities of successfully tackling a most difficult job, symbolized the high point in this struggle. Its cancellation and the act of vandalism that followed the cancellation, are seen as a turning point. From then on, we seem to have gone down hill and lost control of our own destiny. Our economy is branch plant oriented and very vulnerable, as the present depression has proven. Clearly defined turning points in a country's destiny are the stuff legends are made of and the Arrow debacle is no exception. In the minds of many people, the Arrow legend is a lament for what Canada could have been and as such, the legend is not likely to disappear.
The irony is that the two major programs the government used to support cancellation of the Arrow: the Bomarc and defence production sharing, both turned out to be predictable flops. In 1958, prior to the actual cancellation of the Arrow, the U.S. planned to build forty Bomarc bases. The program ran into trouble and the number was reduced to eighteen, then to twelve with the proponents of the Bomarc fighting to save the program. Canada was told in mid July of 1960, just over a year after the cancellation of the Arrow, of the program's delay and work on the two bases in Canada was slowed down.
The problems with the Bomarc had serious repercussions. On Feb. 4th, 1960, Cabinet was told that a supersonic fighter was needed to defend Canada. The Commander in Chief of NORAD, General Kuter, was requesting the replacement of the CF100 with some up-to-date equipment. The Canadian Chiefs of Staff recommended the purchase of 66 C101Bs (the Voodoo) from the U.S. These were second hand aircraft costing less than the Arrow, but with much inferior performance.
The political implications of this proposed purchase so soon after the Arrow cancellation were obvious. On March 8th,1960, Cabinet decided not to negotiate it. The international situation deteriorated and on July 4th a proposal was put before Cabinet to exchange 37 CL44s, freighters built by Canadair in Montreal, for the 66 Voodoos. Each package was valued at about 155 million. A deal was worked out and announced by Diefenbaker about a year later on June 12th, 1961.(45) Interestingly enough, there is no record of any CL44s being sent to the USAF. This exchange fell through because it was an election year in the U.S. and the administration there did not want to risk antagonizing the American aircraft industry. The final deal was for Canada to man sixteen Pinetree Line radar bases in exchange for the Voodoos.(46) Obviously this final deal was not as much help to Canadian industry as the original proposal would have been, but then bargaining with the U.S. has never been easy. This is especially true when our politicians leave themselves little to bargain with.
Not so well known is the fact that defence production sharing turned out to be a playing field sharply tilted in favour of the U.S. The purchasing procedure in the U.S. followed the normal practice of issuing a specification to those on the bidder's list in the U.S. and calling for tenders to be in by a certain due date. An information meeting would be arranged by the agency calling for tenders so that all the prospective bidders would have a chance to ask questions and get any uncertain areas cleared up. When the specification was issued to U.S. suppliers, it would also go to a joint U.S./Canadian committee who would decide if Canadian suppliers could take part in the bidding. If the answer was yes, the specification would then be sent to the Canadian government, which would circulate it to Canadian firms.
With these built in delays, by the time a Canadian firm got the specification, the date of the information meeting would be past and the due date for tenders rapidly approaching. There were even cases in which the request for tenders arrived after the closing date. Thus, frequently it was not worth the effort to prepare a bid. Should a Canadian firm decide to bid, there were a couple of other hurdles to overcome. Offshore bids had an automatic 15% penalty assessed against them. If an American firm that was in an area of high unemployment put in a bid, it had an advantage of up to 20% over both American and Canadian bids. Crumbs from the table would be a better name than Defence Production Sharing.(47)
George Shaw First written August 1991 Revised June 1994
The Legend of the Arrow
Footnotes and References
Originally found in file avro2.txt on the AHFC BBS
First HTML translation by R. Kyle Schmidt, July 22 1995
Second HTML revision by Mike deWit, November 7 1999