The Avro Arrow Conspiracies
In March of 1958, the world's most advanced interceptor aircraft took to the skies on its maiden test flight. Canada's Avro F-105 Arrow was big, sleek, beautiful, and blinding white. It was the first aircraft to use fly-by-wire technology. It could fly Mach 2, as fast as the world record, and had every potential to go faster. It had the most advanced avionics ever developed. And it had been built to fulfill the world's most important mission: to fly higher and faster than anything else, to defeat Soviet bombers predicted to soon come to North America via the Arctic. And, not insignificantly, the Arrow's development — and its successful completion as the world's most advanced aircraft — was a project of immense national pride to Canadians. So one can imagine the anguish when, less than a year later, the project was canceled and all existing aircraft, materials, tooling, and blueprints were ordered destroyed. The nation was left in shock. For many, the wound still smarts, and conspiracy theories have swirled ever since.
For a long time, Canada's small aircraft industry had been largely limited to licensed building of American and British designs. But when the Cold War started to get more and more real, the Royal Canadian Air Force laid out requirements for an interceptor aircraft to defeat Russian bombers coming in over the Arctic. No existing aircraft met those requirements, and so the designers at Avro Canada — a subsidiary of the British aircraft company Hawker Siddeley — went to the drawing board and put everything they had into it. The Arrow would be a completely new design from the ground up, so the designers were not constrained by any existing conventions. They designed better avionics than anything currently flying. They fully employed the new high pressure hydraulic flight controls that other manufacturers were still only planning. They even designed an all-new engine called the Iroquois, as existing engines were either too heavy or not powerful enough for the interceptor mission.
In the early days of the Cold War, a fighter and an interceptor were two substantially different aircraft. A fighter was a short range plane that would go up, engage in some nimble aerobatics, and then come back down. An interceptor, however, had a much bigger job. When inbound bombers were detected, an interceptor had to go up, probably hit supersonic speeds for an extended time to catch the bombers, get close enough to deploy its weapons, and then return home — all of this possibly at night or in horrible weather. To do all of this, interceptors were bigger, heavier, more powerful, and carried much more fuel than fighters.
But just as the Arrow was being built, strategic priorities between the superpowers shifted, largely due to the advancing technologies of ballistic missiles. Interceptor aircraft are of no use against an ICBM, which flies in space and drops a ballistic warhead onto its target far faster than an aircraft or its missiles can go. In fact, on the very same day that the first Avro Arrow was rolled out of the assembly building for the press (October 4, 1957), the Soviets launched Sputnik I atop an R-7 rocket booster — and the R-7 was also their first ICBM. It was truly an eerie convergence of events — the Arrow's grand introduction just as the thing that made it obsolete literally flashed overhead at the same moment.
And even if the Soviets did continue flying their bombers over the pole toward Canada, interceptor aircraft were no longer the best way to take them out. Surface-to-air missiles were just then becoming a reality, exemplified by the United States' BOMARC missile. It had wings and looked like a fighter jet, but it launched with a booster rocket then switched to ramjet engines, together getting it to its target in half the time it would have taken the Arrow, and then destroying the target with no questions asked with a nuclear warhead.
(It's important to note that times, technologies, and strategies continued to evolve after the Arrow's cancellation, and some of the above changes very soon became obsolete themselves, including the BOMARC. But these were the influences and pressures at the time.)
And, of course, the Arrow's cost was an issue. Canada was a small country and couldn't support the development of such an expensive plane by buying them all itself. Avro would need to sell plenty to Allied customers. But unfortunately, there was simply no interest at all. The United States was in full swing with its Century Series of fighters and interceptors, including the F-101B Voodoo and the F-106 Delta Dart, virtually a direct competitor to the Arrow, though much cheaper and already in full mass production. As maintaining a strong domestic military-industrial complex is a national security priority for every country able to maintain one, it was extremely rare for any superpower to purchase a foreign design.
Addendum: The American XF-108 — also canceled — also bears an important mention. Its appearance and specifications were nearly identical to the Arrow, though its development lagged behind its Canadian counterpart a bit. It was canceled seven months after the Arrow was, for all the same reasons, with only one wooden mockup having been built. —BD
"Black Friday," as it came to be called, was February 20, 1959, when the program's cancellation was announced to the Avro company, putting over 14,000 people out of work immediately, in addition to some 15,000 employees at subcontractors. Five Arrows had been completed, with several others being nearly so. After two months of various parties in the government discussing what to do with them, and learning that the UK didn't want them, the order was given to destroy everything: planes, engines, parts, and plans.
A primary reason for the destruction of the Arrows was national security. It was known, or at least believed, that the Soviets had at least one spy inside Avro, and they were intensely interested in the plane. This was confirmed with the 1998 publication of the book The Sword and the Shield which gave some of the history of the spy, code named Lind, and his KGB contact. Even more information on this came out in 2016 in the book Shattered Illusions. Any fear in the Canadian government about the Soviets getting classified information on the Arrow was, it turned out, very well justified.
And ever since then, Arrowheads — the name some give to the many passionate fans of the Arrow and its fate, both true and false versions — continue to believe and spread conspiracy theories about the Arrow. Let's take a quick look at three of the most popular.
1. The prime minister killed the Arrow out of spite and dislike for Avro's president.
It's well known that Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and Avro President Crawford Gordon disliked one another intensely. Diefenbaker was a conservative who didn't smoke or drink; Gordon was rarely without a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The one time they met, Gordon was described as drunken and rude, and blew smoke into Diefenbaker's face. When Gordon told his company the project was cancelled, he used the companywide intercom to say the order had come from (a series of unprintable expletives) in Ottawa. One Canadian historian who has written on the Arrow, Jack Granatstein, speculated that Diefenbaker may have cancelled the Arrow just to spite the vulgar Gordon.
The truth is that whether Diefenbaker felt that way or not, the influences on the decision to cancel the Arrow were far broader and more powerful than just one man's personal whims. The cost to Canada of having recently joined NORAD and having to upgrade its missile defenses was some quarter of a billion dollars, and they simply didn't have the money for both that and the Arrow. Canada's Minister of Defense had also long been advocating for the Arrow's cancellation. Diefenbaker was indeed the one who made the final call, but he made it in the direction a strong current was already flowing.
2. Americans had the Arrow killed to protect their aerospace industry from a superior competitor.
Assuming the Americans did indeed have this kind of influence over the Canadian Prime Minister (and, by extension, over the United Kingdom), it's not at all clear that reducing the available inventory of front line Allied interceptors in the face of a mounting Soviet threat would have been in the Americans' interest. If anything, American national security would have been enhanced having the Arrow up north as the first responder. So this conjecture just doesn't make any sense.
What does make sense, though, is that the termination of the Arrow program made many of North America's top aerospace engineers available for work. 32 Avro engineers, nicknamed the Avro group, were immediately poached by NASA. Most went straight to work on the Mercury and Apollo programs. In fact, the transistorized fly-by-wire controls of the Mercury spacecraft were developed by two ex-Avro engineers who had designed the Arrow's system. Could the need for this talent have made the Americans pressure Diefenbaker?
It seems unlikely. The brain drain from Canada to the United States was not new or unique, and NASA — like all aerospace companies — was always recruiting. Would the Americans have compromised national security by lobbying for the Arrow to get canceled just in the hope of adding these 32 guys to Apollo's workforce of 400,000? It simply wasn't necessary.
3. At least one Arrow was spirited out of the country and preserved.
Many people have persisted in claiming that some Avro pilots and engineers managed to secretly fly one Arrow to safety in some other country. Former employees, former pilots, and authors have all suggested this; some have winked and said they'd rather not talk about it. Some people have "come forward" over the years and said they saw or heard an Arrow flying overhead sometime after Black Friday.
A black and white aerial photograph shows the five original Arrows in various states of disassembly on the Avro tarmac. But then soon after, in June 1959, a photographer took some more aerial photographs and one of them — tail number 202 — had gone missing. Had 202 been reassembled and flown away? No; it had been taken back into the hangar for removal of some classified electronics from Hughes Aircraft. Government memos have been preserved detailing the progress of the destruction; many were digitized in 2021 and are publicly available through the National Research Council of Canada. Calling these faked, with none of the disgruntled workers ever being a whistleblower, strains credibility.
The discovery of an authentic Avro Arrow ejection seat in the UK in 2011 added fuel to this conspiracy theory. It was in the hands of a broker who was offering it for sale on eBay; it belonged to a private collector who had acquired it from an old, long-since defunct aviation museum. Whatever earlier history of the ejection seat is not known, nor can it be traced to a specific Arrow. However, with a factory employing over ten thousand people, many of whom spirited away souvenirs for many different reasons, there are countless possibilities for how the seat could have made it to the UK. That a complete Avro Arrow was actually flown to the UK and had parts of it given to museums — which would have attracted massive attention — is among the very least likely of those possibilities. The flashy details of the story included that it was the second such seat this broker had sold, therefore probably a matched pair; and that its owner watched an Arrow land at RAF Manston in the 1960s. The skeptically minded should remember that flashy details that are implausible and that have no evidence are par for the course for brokers selling rare items on eBay.
Keep in mind that the distance from Avro to RAF Manston is over 3100 nautical miles, more than double the Arrow's maximum ferry range of 1500 nmi. This would have had to be a flight with multiple stops for one of the world's most recognizable and noisiest airplanes, requiring scores of ground personnel and controllers, with nobody knowing about it.
An ejection seat would not even be the most eyebrow-raising souvenir to have been liberated in spite of the destruction order. One draftsman, Ken Barnes, took an entire book of huge blueprints for the Arrow, perhaps the most sensitive souvenir possible. He hid them at home, and only after his death did his son announce their existence by loaning them to the University of Saskatchewan for a special exhibition.
So in summary, despite all of us wishing together that a great plane like the Arrow had had its turn in the skies, and was today gracing airplane museums around the world, its cancellation was just one more example of how the cookie crumbles. It certainly wasn't the only such case, though it was among the most disappointing and consequential. Today, a gorgeous full-scale replica of the Arrow is available for public viewing at the Edenvale Aerodrome in Ontario, and seeing this magnificent work is probably the closest any of us will ever get to experiencing what might have been.
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