FALL OF THE ARROW
From the breathless reviews of a recently revived stage-play about the demise of Canada’s CF-105 Avro Arrow fighter aircraft 50-odd years ago, it is clear the anti-American revisionists are still rewriting history, and also that media people now have not the slightest idea of what all the fuss was about. As I personally observed the events while they took place, I would like to add a less sensational but more factual account of the real circumstances that led to cancellation of the Arrow.
I well recall that cold Friday afternoon of Feb. 20, 1959, as I trudged among a silent crowd streaming out of the Avro Aircraft plant at Malton, Ontario. Just minutes before, we had been abruptly told over the loudspeakers that our employment was terminated, as of that moment, and all workers were ordered to vacate the buildings immediately. Numbly, we lined up at the chain-link gates to allow unusually subdued security guards to inspect our briefcases and lunch buckets, to prevent any disgruntled ex-employees from smuggling out valuables or documentation.
Soon afterwards, while driving home along Sargent Rd. in Georgetown, I saw little family groups outside every house; mothers with small children. Some were already greeting their man, back early today, confirming shocking TV/radio news of unemployment for virtually everyone in the entire subdivision, mostly inhabited by Avro employees. I spotted two homes that actually had For Sale signs up already.
As I pulled into the driveway of our brand-new semi-detached mortgage, my wife stood holding up our new baby at the kitchen window, our 2-year-old son waving beside them. Word had already reached her, and I threw them a brave grin. Being laid off was worrying for everyone concerned, but I at least knew I was going in for my second interview for an editor’s job I’d already applied for at MacLean-Hunter Publishing a couple of weeks previously -- right after hearing “government reassurance” that the Arrow project was not going to be cancelled. (Incidentally, I did start work on my new job there a week later.)
Still, I can claim that I was among the 14,528 Avro employees who summarily got the chop that unforgettable Black Friday. The ripple effect of the Avro plant closing was far wider – scores of smaller supply companies were also affected nationwide, causing a further 14,000 workers to lose their jobs elsewhere. Yet, for some engineers and technical staff, the massive layoff turned into a doorway to enormously better opportunities. Soon after Avro’s closure, scores of American employee recruiters arrived in Toronto, eager to hire people with aviation expertise. So many ex-Avro engineers and production workers were hired by Boeing Aircraft that Seattle was dubbed “Malton West.”
It's astonishing to realize the Arrow shutdown happened over a half-century ago now, the affair now part of Canada's history. Few people now remember how the Arrow had its origin in the early days of the aviation industry in Canada, which became for a while one of the great achievements of this country. At outset of World War Two, the Royal Canadian Air Force had only about 270 aircraft, of which only 40 wore suitable for combat. Worse, there were few airplane factories in the country, employing less than 4,000 people. By 1945, Canada had a massive aircraft industry that had produced almost 11,000 warplanes that helped play a vital role in the air war against the Axis powers. Giant among these firms was Victory Aircraft of Malton, Ontario, which employed 10,000 people and manufactured 430 Lancaster heavy bombers. Soon after war's end, this company became A.V. Roe Canada.
Politics and personalities had a lot to do with the corporation's postwar evolution. There was its main founder, Sir Roy Dobson, a blunt Yorkshire industrialist; production manager Fred Smye; and the Liberal government's hard-driving Minister of Munitions – C.D Howe. Also add a cast of brilliant designers, notably Jim Floyd and Jim Chamberlin. To support them, was a large skilled workforce, many of them immigrants from Britain.
Avro began manufacturing a series of advanced design aircraft. First there came the innovative C-102 Avro Jetliner (a world first) which flew in 1949. Then came the CF-100, a high-performance fighter plane. Finally, work began on the CF-105 Avro Arrow high-altitude fighter, powered by Canadian-designed Orenda engines. The futuristic delta-winged Arrow then seemed like something off the cover of a science fiction magazine. The new plane had its beginnings in 1948, when a new design was sought to meet the Royal Canadian Air Force’s requirement for a high-altitude long-range fighter plane capable of defending Canada’s skies against the threat of Soviet Union bombers.
However, strong hints of trouble for the Arrow started within days of the event. Media reports emphasised the lobbying efforts by Ottawa to convince the United States government to buy a fleet of Arrows for the American air force, a massive purchase that would go a long way to financing Avro’s production costs. When these sales-talks fell through, reporters began to speculate about a “conspiracy” by the US Central Intelligence Agency to scupper the deal. That sensationalist myth endures to this day.
At this time, I had been employed by Avro as a writer/editor, and was busily working on a script for a public relations film about the plane. The project was suddenly declared ‘high priority’ so it required a movie-making marathon in which I endured viewing over 30, 000 feet of 16mm. colour film. Working with the Photographic Department, I indexed every single scene in the entire run of film which was a record of the Arrow's development.
After 15 hours of watching the screen, my bleary eyes had selected scenes totalling 1000 feet of film suitable for use in a half-hour movie aimed at giving the public greater insight of what goes into the design evolution and construction of au ultra-modern fighter aircraft.
All the rush was caused by top management suddenly considering it a high priority for viewing by the public to help increase taxpayer support for the Arrow despite its cost. After I screened a preview of the film to a pleased management committee, one jovial executive asked me what I suggested for its title. Reminded of a popular song of the day, I impishly said, “There’s A Goldmine In The Sky!” Nervous laughter all ‘round, and a baleful glare at me from my immediate boss.
My fly-on-the-wall presence at management discussions let me listen in to senior executives expressing daily concerns about possible government cancellation. More ominously, the Avro plant received a visit from the new Minister of Defence, General [rtd.] George Pearkes, V.C., a highly respected war hero. The distinguished old soldier was sent to make a speech to bolster the assembled Avro workers, bringing the Prime Minister’s personal denial of any rumours of cancellation and assurance that the Arrow project was not going to be cancelled.
Production of the Arrow was suddenly cancelled just a couple of weeks afterwards. It is fashionable today, for revisionists to ludicrously ascribe the fall of the Arrow to complicated schemes by CIA agents working for American industrialists jealous of the plane’s superior performance. But the real motivation was far different. Very soon after the Conservative Party took power, Canada’s Defence Committee behind closed doors had repeatedly requested cancellation of the project, for mixed reasons of expense and unsuitability.
General Pearke’s explanation was only publicly revealed much later:- “We did not cancel the CF-105 because there was no [Russian] threat, but because there was a lesser threat, and we got the BOMARC in lieu of more aircraft to look after this.” That reasoning also happened to conveniently help the new incumbent Conservative government to discredit the previous Liberal Party administration’s wisdom.
Now, more than a half-century later, it is fashionable for revisionists and conspiracy buffs to ascribe the fall of the Arrow to dark schemes by the American government. But I harbour clear memories of home-grown Canadian party politics being really at the bottom of things. To me and most other ex-Avro people who went on to different careers, the CF-105 Arrow still remains a sad example of a national aviation dream destroyed by the short-sighted squabbles of politicians.
The Arrow project was not only cancelled, Ottawa ordered the senseless destruction of the five airframes that had been built, so that its physical existence disappeared without a trace. One friend who was briefly re-called to the Avro plant to help collect company movies for burning, told me he saw three complete airframes being sliced apart like aluminum bananas. Not only were no samples of the aircraft preserved even for a museum, the process extended to making sure that no blueprints survived as possible rebukes in future years.
But at least a print of one of my movies did survive, complete with the Royal Canadian Air Force’s official march as background music. To my surprise and pride, I stumbled across FLIGHT OF THE ARROW posted on YouTube. If you want to see this superb aircraft in its glory days, here is the link: