Canada’s aviation “tragedy” and “disappointment”
This being February, Canadians have once again been treated to the annual paean to the Avro Arrow. It is a memorial that leaves a question: Why has the Avro Jetliner never received the same attention?
A CBC web report had some Canadians in “mourning” this week over the demise of the Avro Arrow fifty years ago.[i] The Toronto Star had an A.V. Roe company worker who worked on the Arrow in the 1950s “gazing in adoration” at a replica of the experimental but highly advanced fighter aircraft now on display at the new Canadian Air and Space Museum.[ii]
The Ottawa Citizen carried an interesting and informative survey of Canadian aviation history which characterized the Avro Arrow episode as a “tragedy.”[iii] The Avro Jetliner made it into the story, but its demise is recorded only as a “disappointment.” Both planes represented advances in aviation that were unmatched at the time, both showed the extraordinary acumen of Canadian industry, and both were cancelled by government order and destroyed.
The Avro Arrow story is well known. A Canadian designed fighter aircraft, the Avro Arrow was tested and refined over a number of years, at great and growing expense. It could fly at almost twice the speed of sound, at very high altitudes and in all weather, and was highly maneuverable – ideal for intercepting Soviet bombers in Canada’s north.
On February 20, 1959 it was abruptly cancelled and all of the test planes destroyed and cut into pieces. Thousands of workers were laid off. Costs had been escalating and it was clear that it would be far too expensive to put into production if it had to rely on Canadian orders alone. The United States, the most likely customer, was not about to buy a centre piece of its military arsenal, an advanced fighter aircraft, from Canada and thus, the argument in Washington went, make its national security vulnerable to imports.
The story of the Avro Jetliner follows the same basic plotline.[iv]
The Avro Jetliner was not the first civilian passenger jet to fly; the British Comet beat it by two weeks in 1949. But it was the Avro Jetliner that set the standard. Designed to carry up to 40 passengers, it took its first flight on August 10, 1949. It continued to be tested and refined and by 1950 it had reached a speed of 500 miles per hour and an altitude of more than 39,000 feet.
The single Jetliner flew for seven years – used in various roles, including as a VIP transport and an aerial photo platform, it carried the world’s first jet airmail from Toronto to New York. It caught the attention of Howard Hughes who wanted to start a US production line under license and deliver the plane to his TWA airline.
On December 10, 1956 the Jetliner was abruptly cancelled and cut into pieces, with only the cockpit left intact.
Like the Arrow, the Jetliner involves a complicated story behind the simple facts. It was in particular a victim of the Korean War, during which all Canadian aircraft production facilities were pressed into service turning out aircraft for the war effort. The same pressure is also what prevented Howard Hughes from putting it into production in the US. In Canada the government decided to focus on producing the CF100 fighter aircraft.
A question endures. Why does December 10, 1956 not enjoy the same infamy as February 20, 1959?
[i] Emily Chung, “Remembering the death of the Avro Arrow,” 20 February 2009.
[ii] Jason Miller, “Avro Arrow to spread wings in new museum,” 21 February 2009.
[iii] Peter Pigott, “How 100 years of flight transformed a nation,” 23 February 2009.
[iv] Websites the tell the story include:
Avroland – http://www.avroland.ca/al-c102.html
Arrow Recovery Canada – http://www.avroarrow.org/Jetliner/JetlinerIntro.html
Wikipedia -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avro_Canada_Jetliner.
The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors and/or International Board of Governors.