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.