Vintage Space Fun Fact: The Overshadowed Arrow

In the 1950s, Canada was as much at risk of nuclear attack as was the United States; the country lies in the direct path of any Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) the Soviet Union could launch over the North Pole towards a US target. To protect the nation, the Avro Aircraft Company designed the Arrow, a high speed interceptor aircraft. But the Arrow was nearing extinction before it even left the ground. (The Avro Arrow. Image credit: The Canadian Department of National Defence.)The Arrow was a state of the art aircraft. It was a supersonic delta wing aircraft designed to fly in all weather and capable of reaching speed up to Mach 2. 77 feet long with a wing span of 50 feet, it had ample room for a pilot and a navigator in separate cockpits. The bulk of the Arrow was consumed by a bomb bay so spacious it matched the capacity of most World War Two bomber aircraft. The Arrow was also one of the first aircraft to use fly-by-wire control. The forces the pilot applied to his control stick were converted to electrical signals and the aircraft was flown through its computer.

Conceived in the early 1950s, construction on the Arrow began in 1955, around the time the USAF and NACA approved the X-15 program. Two years later, the first prototype aircraft, Arrow 1, was finished.

More than 13,000 people gathered on a Friday morning in October to watch the aircraft roll out of its hangar; anyone connected to the program, from mail clerks to engineers, stopped working to watch the unveiling of their collective product. (The Arrow, winter 1958.)

The Arrow’s supersonic delta wing design concept was not new — the US used these types of airplanes to mimic the flight capabilities of the Dyna-Soar — but the aircraft represented something more for Canada. It was a chance for the country, which had built bombers for the British Royal Air Force and aircraft parts for the United States during the Second World War, to produce its own aircraft. Moreover, it was possible Avro could build enough Arrows for Canada to meet the threat of any future enemy attacks.

But the date of the Arrow’s rollout was unfortunate. While Avro employees celebrated their aircraft and the future of Canadian aviation, Sputnik beeped overhead. The Soviet Union launched the the first artificial satellite on October 4, 1957, the same day Avro unveiled the Arrow. (Left, artwork from the Avro Arrow rollout newsletter. 1957.)

Sputnik ushered in space age and emphasized the importance of missiles over aircraft in the future of aerospace. The following Monday, newspaper headlines featured Sputnik as the top story. Even in Ontario where the Arrow was built the Arrow was a secondary news item. Sputnik challenged the need for an aircraft like the Arrow, and by extension challenged Canada’s then-burgeoning aviation industry.

The Arrow program progressed; it made its maiden flight in March 1958. But the program was dogged by doubts about its usefulness, and the Canadian government finally cancelled the Arrow program on February 20, 1959.

The Avro Arrow rollout ceremony. October 4, 1957.

Further Reading:

The Avro Arrow Homepage.


7 thoughts on “Vintage Space Fun Fact: The Overshadowed Arrow

  1. The Avro Arrow was my introduction to conspiracy theories — growing up in Canada in the 1970s, “everybody knew” that the Arrow had been killed because it was too technically advanced. It was so awesome, it would have upstaged the Americans, so they threatened Canada with some unspecified economic punishment, and Prime Minister Diefenbaker caved. The mysterious way in which all the parts and tooling were scrapped (ostensibly to protect the secret advanced technology) only added to the conspiratorial flavour of the cancellation.

    It still seems to me that the loss of the institutional knowledge at Avro caused by the cancellation was a real missed opportunity, but the historical fact is that the British also lost their cutting-edge aircraft manufacturing capability, and they had a lot more resources than Canada did. Countries which maintained this kind of tech (the US, the USSR, France) all seem to have done so at enormous public expense, so who knows, maybe it was the right call.

  2. Delta wings were of course used long before Dyna Soar came in the picture. Alexander Lippisch built his first delta wing glider in the 1930s in Germany. In the late forties NACA tested the shape with their Convair XF-92 which resulted in the Delta Dart and Delta Dagger. The French had their Mirage III in 1953 and the British aircraft builder AVRO experimented with delta winged aircraft in the development phase of the big Vulcan bomber.
    The British TSR2 had the same fate, around the same time. It’s a pity those aircraft weren’t developed further. Aesthetically they were just beautiful machines.

  3. One other thing to point out….many of the engineers that worked on the Arrow went to work for NASA when the Diefenbaker government cancelled the program, and help put man on the moon.

    BTW – enjoy your blog…really well done!

  4. There is far more politics involved in the cancellation of the Arrow. Diefenbaker had been elected in 1957 on a platform of reigning in what he considered to be excessive government spending. The A.V. Roe Company (AVRO for short) had two main contracts – the Arrow and the Iroquois engines that would power it, that were both behind schedule and over budget. In spite of repeated indications the new Government was planning to cancel the programs, AVRO management refused to believe it feeling they were “too important to fail”. Unfortunately, on Feb 20th, 1959, the ax fell and both contracts were cancelled. At the time, AVRO was the third largest company in Canada, but the loss of 15,000 employees and another 15,000 in the supply chain were instrumental in the demise of the company.

    As a boy growing up at CFB Rockcliffe outside Ottawa in the late 1960’s I used to go down to the Air Museum because they had all these cool planes. I remember peeking behind a partition in a little used section one day in ’68 and seeing a cockpit (marked CF 206) and some wing sections. I asked the Commissioner on duty what plane that was from and when it would be on display and he said it was all that remained of the AVRO Arrow. At supper that night I mentioned to my Dad (then a Army Captain) what I’d found, and was repeatedly told all the Arrows had been destroyed. I challenged him to come and see for himself and a few days later we went down to the museum and I showed him the parts behind the partition. He was stunned. The resulting discussion about the Arrow and it’s fate stoked a life long interest in aviation in general and the fate of the Arrow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s