Canada’s Jet-Age Dream: The Avro Arrow   

Canada Aviation and Space Museum

Between 1952 and 1959, Avro Canada developed an advanced all-weather fighter interceptor called the CF-105 Arrow.  This aircraft, with its futuristic, delta-wing design, captured Canadians’ imaginations in a way few projects have, before or since.

The Avro CF-105 Arrow was designed to defend Canada against bomber attacks from the Soviet Union. It represented remarkable achievements in aerodynamics, computer-assisted flight technology, fabrication, flight-control, engine design, and speed. The sleek design and promise of supersonic speeds awed the Canadian public, encouraged by nationalistic advertisements and popular press coverage. Despite the aircraft’s technological advances—and the publicity it received—the project was cancelled by the Canadian government in 1959, due to a mix of cost overruns, technical challenges, and Cold War politics.
The Cold War and the Jet Age
By the late 1940s, an increasing threat from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), a former Second World War ally, was turning into what became known as the “Cold War.”   Relations between The United States and the Soviet Union worsened throughout the 1950s, and defence planners predicted that the USSR would attack by sending bombers over the Canadian Arctic. Canada was accordingly caught in the middle—both literally and figuratively.   It was into this environment that Avro Canada was born—the company that would eventually design, build and fly the Avro CF-105 Arrow all-weather fighter aircraft as part of Canada’s attempt to counter these threats.

The story of the Arrow starts with the establishment of Avro Canada, in December 1945.

Taking over operations at a former government-run military aircraft plant called Victory Aircraft, Avro was founded with the intention of designing aircraft in Canada—not merely building foreign-designed planes on licence.

The Avro team was young and ambitious. The three key players were Frederick Smye, President of Avro Aircraft during the Arrow project; Crawford Gordon, President of A.V. Roe Canada between 1951 and 1959; and James C. Floyd, Avro’s Chief Engineer, who led the team that designed and built the Avro CF-105 Arrow.

The Avro Canada team started with 350 former Victory Aircraft employees, and eventually grew to a staff of over 14,000.

Facilities in the small town of Malton increased dramatically due to Avro Canada’s presence, including housing, infrastructure, and amenities.

Between 1946 and 1952, the Avro Canada team achieved several impressive Canadian “Firsts,” such as the design and production of the Jetliner—the first commercial jet designed and flown in North America—and the CF-100, the first Canadian-designed fighter aircraft.

By 1952, Cold War tensions were rising, and talk of supersonic fighters, guided missiles, and Soviet spies filled newspapers.

Although the CF-100 was just barely entering service, the heightened arms race between superpowers threatened it with obsolescence. The Royal Canadian Air Force needed a new type of aircraft, one that could maintain supersonic speed for an extended length of time, in order to intercept future enemy bombers over northern Canada.

The Birth of the Arrow
In 1952, a new specification was drafted by the Royal Canadian Air Force for the next generation of fighter aircraft.   These specifications called for advanced capabilities, to counter the threat of Soviet nuclear-armed supersonic bombers entering Canadian airspace.   Avro Canada offered several proposals for delta-wing fighter aircraft to meet these specifications, and in 1954, they entered into an agreement with Canadian government to design the Arrow.

The Royal Canadian Air Force design specifications were formidable and surpassed anything documented in any other country in the Western world.

Chief Engineer Jim Floyd would later comment that, “What the air staff were asking for was the moon.”

––Jim C. Floyd (Shutting Down the National Dream, page 180, from from a June 10, 1979 interview.)

A dedicated team of engineers and designers, led by Jim Floyd, were given the task of proposing an aircraft that would meet these advanced specifications.

To move from drawing board to production line, Avro Aircraft conducted one of the most extensive programs of wind tunnel, structural and systems testing ever undertaken.

Testing was intense, including a program of large, instrumented free-flight models mounted on Nike rocket boosters, and launched over Lake Ontario for aerodynamics tests.

Machinery was built for production as soon as specifications were available, including a specialized metal-bonding autoclave, milling machines, and assembly jigs.

“A full-scale metal mock-up was made from the detail tools as they became available, and this mock-up acted not only as a tool proving device, but was also used to train the production crews.”

—Jim Floyd, British Commonwealth Lecture 1958, “The Canadian Approach to All-Weather Interceptor Development," published in the Journal of Aeronautical Engineers, Vol 62)

A cockpit mock-up was even strapped to a truck, and tested on the runway for visibility.

The Arrow was also one of the world’s first aircraft to employ a fly-by-wire control system, replacing mechanical controls with electrical wires.

In addition to a new aircraft, Avro Aircraft engineers determined that no engine currently in existence would be powerful enough to meet the Royal Canadian Air Force’s advanced specifications.

Sister company Orenda Engines stepped up to create a follow-up to the innovative engine they had designed and built for the CF-100, the Orenda.

Building a new airplane and a new engine at the same time was risky, but Avro Canada decided to move forward with both projects.

The new engine was named the Iroquois, and it was capable of 12,000 kg (23 450 lb.) of thrust.

Production of the first Arrow, called RL201, was started in 1956, with an anticipated first flight by the end of 1957.

Scheduling delays and technical problems delayed the date.

The Arrow Unveiled
On October 4, 1957, a crowd of over 13,000 people gathered outside the Avro Aircraft plant in Malton, Ontario. They were anxiously waiting to catch a glimpse of the fully assembled aircraft that many of them had had a part in designing, planning, and building.   Even before its first flight, the Arrow’s sleek appearance (and hefty price tag) drew a great deal of attention from the public and the media.

This was the first time the Arrow would be unveiled to the public, and the first time many employees would see it put together.

Following the speeches, Minister of National Defence George Pearkes pulled a cord to drop a golden curtain, revealing the sleek, white delta-wing aircraft to the crowd.

A band played, press photographers snapped pictures, and the crowd applauded and cheered.

Although the rollout had been carefully stage-managed by Avro Canada's PR Department—right down to holding the event at 2:00 p.m. to ensure that newspapers could file stories for their evening editions—controversy surrounded the project. Over 4,000 glossy 8x10 promotional packages were sent out.

With costs mounting, and a change from a majority Liberal to a minority Conservative government in 1957, the Arrow program was under intense pressure to perform—especially since many were debating whether or not the age of manned aircraft was coming to an end.

Douglas Letterman, reporter for the Hamilton Spectator, summed up the issue nicely:

“Will the Arrow, which will not be in squadron service until 1961, be outdistanced soon by rockets? This is the real contest the Arrow faces. Not against Russian bombers, which she can magnificently demolish—but against the time-scale of the rocket missile age which is rapidly compressing her useful fighting life.”
(—Douglas Letterman, “Canada Unveils the H-Jet,” Hamilton Spectator, October 4, 1957)

Chief Experimental Test Pilot Janusz Zurakowski was a Polish-born Second World War veteran of the RAF, with a reputation for being an excellent pilot. He had tested the CF-100, and was now going to be the first pilot to fly the CF-105 Arrow.

The Arrow Flies
Although the Royal Canadian Air Force and government were becoming increasingly alarmed by the Arrow program’s rising costs and delayed schedule, Avro Canada continued to press on with production.   On March 25, 1958, the first Avro CF-105 Arrow was ready for flight tests. Famous test pilot Janusz Zurakowski would be at the controls, with air escort by two of the four men who would eventually fly in CF-105s: fellow Avro Canada test pilot “Spud” Potocki, and Royal Canadian Air Force pilot Jack Woodman.

As Zurakowski made his final inspections, all non-essential employees flocked to the tarmac to witness the flight.

Zurakowski took off at 9:51 a.m. on March 25, 1958—almost five months after the Arrow's public debut.

Employees were thrilled to see the delta-wing aircraft lift off the runway—although also nervous that something might go wrong.

The first flight went as planned, lasting 35 minutes. Zurakowski was pleased that the aircraft handled much like the flight simulator.

Zurakowski would later say:

“The first flight of the Arrow on March 25, 1958 was very simple. Just check the response of controls, engines, undercarriage and air brakes, handling of speed of 400 knots (460 mph), and low speed in a landing configuration. There was certainly more excitement for the several thousand Avro employees watching my first flight than for myself seated in the cockpit trying to remember hundreds of do’s and don’ts.”

(“Test Flying the Arrow”, J. Zurakowski, Canadian Aviation Historical Society Journal, 1979)

Zurakowski gave interviews to several newspapers and radio/television stations, and film footage was broadcast across the country.

Test Flying the Arrow
Four men would eventually fly the Avro CF-105 Arrow: Avro Aircraft test pilots Janusz Zurakowski (nicknamed Zura), Wladyslaw “Spud” Potocki, Peter Cope, and Royal Canadian Air Force test pilot Jack Woodman.  Zurakowski would continue flight testing in RL201, with Woodman first taking the controls on April 22, 1958. Potocki flew RL201 only once, on April 23. 

RL202 was ready in August, but was badly damaged in November of 1958 when the tires burst on landing. The pilot, “Spud” Potocki, was not injured. Earlier that day, he had reached March 1.98, the highest speed achieved by the Arrow.

RL203 was rolled off the production line in September 1958. It was flown at supersonic speeds on its maiden flight, with Zurakowski at the controls.

RL204 has the distinction of being the only Arrow to land outside of Malton. Test pilot Peter Cope made an unscheduled stop at the Royal Canadian Air Force base in Trenton in February 1959, due to a blocked runway.

RL205 was only flown once, in January 1959. Engine trouble grounded the aircraft, and it was never flown again.

“Spud” Potocki made RL201’s final flight on February 19, 1959. The program was cancelled the following day.

Overtaken by Events
The same day the Arrow was unveiled to the public in October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite—Sputnik 1. The launch not only overshadowed the Arrow’s ceremony in the press, but it was also a factor in the decision, less than 15 months later, to cancel the Canadian jet fighter program altogether.

RL206 was almost complete when the government cancelled the Arrow program on February 20, 1959.

February 23, 1959 was the 50th anniversary of powered flight in Canada, and Avro had ramped up publicity leading to a series of planned events.

Unfortunately, the Arrow project would be cancelled just three days before the festivities.

Prime Minister Diefenbaker, announcing the cancellation in the House of Commons, said:

“Unfortunately these outstanding achievements have been overtaken by events. In recent months it has come to be realized that the bomber threat against which the CF-105 was intended to provide defence has diminished. . . Potential aggressors now seem more likely to put their effort into missile development.”

(Hansard, February 20, 1959)

“[The Arrow] would have been obsolete by the time it was ready for squadron use. No one advocates building buggies in the age of motor cars.”

(—Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, The Globe and Mail, February 24, 1959)

Following the cancellation of the Arrow program, Avro Canada laid off almost 14,000 employees (between Avro Aircraft and Orenda Engines).

Many more lost their jobs with subcontractors and suppliers.

The completed aircraft, along with many blueprints and models, were destroyed by order of the Department of National Defence—but the story and controversy surrounding the Arrow lives on.

The Avro CF-105 Arrow captured Canadians’ imaginations in a way few projects have, before or since.

The combination of nationalistic promotion, Cold War fears, and the attractive, futuristic aesthetic of the aircraft created a lasting impression.

Even today, almost 60 years later, the Arrow remains the subject of intense scrutiny, conspiracy theories, countless newspaper and magazine articles, books and even television and theatre.

Many of the talented engineers who worked on the Avro CF-105 Arrow project went on to work in other aerospace companies in Canada, the USA, and the UK. Some were involved in NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs, helping to put the first human on the Moon.

The technological advances made during the Arrow's development thus continue to live on, in aircraft design and development around the world.

The Collection
Several key figures involved in the Arrow’s development kept memorabilia, photographs, newsletters, memos, and models. One such collector, Avro Aircraft President Fred Smye, eventually donated these materials to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

In addition, the Museum houses a collection of over 500 images of the Arrow in different stages of planning, production, flight testing, and final disassembly, donated by Avro Canada’s parent, the Hawker Siddeley group.

Many of the images the Canada Aviation and Space Museum has of Avro staff, the Avro CF-105 Arrow, and production facilities were taken for the Avro News Magazine employee newsletter, and other promotional pieces.

The Canada Aviation and Space Museum also has a collection of blueprints, plans, and several pieces from the six Arrows produced.

Although no complete Arrow survived the cutting torches, it continues to fly in photographs, articles, documentaries and artifacts.

Canada Aviation and Space museum
Credits: Story

Created by the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, 2016.


Avro News Magazine, various issues, 1949-1959

CASM Archives

Campagna, Palmiro. Storms of Controversy: The Secret Avro Arrow Files Revealed Toronto, Canada: Stoddart, 1992.

Dow, James. The Arrow. Toronto: J. Lorimer, 1979.

Organ, Richard. Avro Arrow: The Story of the Avro Arrow from Its Evolution to Its Extinction. Cheltenham, Ont.: Boston Mills, 1980.

Stewart, Greig. An Arrow through the Heart: The Life and times of Crawford Gordon and the Avro Arrow. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1998.

Stewart, Greig. Shutting down the National Dream: A.V. Roe and the Tragedy of the Avro Arrow. Toronto, Canada: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1988.

Valiquette, Marc-André. Destruction of a Dream: The Tragedy of Avro Canada and the CF-105 Arrow (vol 1-3). Laval, Québec: 2009.

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