This article is a natural extension of my last one, but the watch in question celebrates not the RCAF but one single aircraft, the CF-105 Avro Arrow. This is one of those founding myths that make Canadians so … Canadian. Like the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Banting and insulin, Team Canada vs Team Russia in 1972, and Terry Fox quitting his cross country run – the story of the Arrow is such a tragic tale that it remains forever etched in the Canadian psyche.
Whitby is a Canadian micro band that marketed a limited run of watches a couple of years ago to commemorate the Arrow, an advanced supersonic interceptor designed and built completely in Canada at the height of Cold War. The watch was made in Germany with a Selita SW200 automatic movement and a 43mm titanium case with a double riveted leather strap. These are of course impossible to find having sold out long ago but their uncanny resemblance to the Laco Basic Pilot’s watch or flieger seems to confirm with whom Whitby outsourced their manufacturing.
This watch design was highly standardized in the 1930s by the German Imperial Air Ministry and manufactured by only five companies, Stowa, A. Lange & Sohn, Wempe, Laco and IWC (the only non German company based in Switzerland). There are only two face designs, and this one is referred to as Type A (Baumuster A) was manufactured from 1940 through to January 1941 with a large 55+ mm steel or brass case with snap on case backs, The large case naturally contributed to a highly readable dial but was also necessary to house the large pocket watch movements being used. Each one used a balance spring with a Brequet overcoil to maximize the regularity of the balance for improved precision. The movement was surrounded by an iron core to make it antimagnetic and each watch was a certified chronometer tested and adjusted at the German Naval Observatory. This along with hacking allowed the watch to be used for dead reckoning navigation. The oversized crown allowed operation with gloved hands. The flamed-blue sword hands over stark black and white dial with Arabic numerals were coated with radium. A triangle with a dot on each side replaced the numeral 12 to indicate which side of the dial points upwards. A long riveted strap was the remaining requirement allowing the watch to be worn over the flight suit in unheated and unpressurized aircraft cockpits.
But what is the story behind the CF-105 Arrow that continues to raise controversy amongst Canadians even to this day?
I won’t go through the entire story because it has been well documented elsewhere. But I would like to summarize the latest research from recently declassified government documents that dispel the most popular conspiracy theories that continue to circulate after all these decades.
The Victory Aircraft Company, located just north of Toronto, developed a reputation for building superior Avro Lancaster bombers for both the RAF and RCAF during World War 2. After the war, in 1945 the A.V. Roe subsidiary of Hawker Siddeley bought the company and it became A.V. Roe Canada. A year later, Turbo-Research Limited was acquired by A.V. Roe Canada to design and build engines and in 1954 the company was split into the AVRO division for aircraft design & production and the ORENDA division for engine design & production.
The company demonstrated an ability to attract top engineers from all over the world who would go on to design and produce aircraft with leading edge technology in astonishing short time frames. After a gestation of only 5 years, the world’s second passenger jet, the Avro Jetliner became airworthy on August 10, 1949 mere weeks after the British de Havilland Comet. The single prototype Jetliner flew flawlessly for 7 years before it was scrapped, just before the arrival of the Boeing 707. In contrast, three Comets crashed in its first year but at least the Brits persisted and corrected the design flaws and flew them until 1981. For years, the apparent lack of sales interest in the jet cast an ill repute but recent documents reveal the truth. After an appearance at Wright Patterson AFB where American test pilots were able to fly it, the Canadian Joint Staff in Washington wrote a memo to the Department of National Defence stating “it is now confirmed that the USAF wish to purchase 12 Jetliners …” The DND did not act.
Still, the CF-100 went from planning to delivery in only 7 years and nearly 700 aircraft were produced, including 53 sold to the Belgian Air Force. Orenda would produce nearly 4000 engines to power both the CF-100 and the F-86 Sabres built under license by Canadair. The CF-100 would acquire the reputation of being the best all weather fighter of its period.
Even as the CF-100s were being delivered to the RCAF, it was clear that a supersonic interceptor was needed to interdict Soviet bombers flying over the Arctic as part of Canada’s commitment to NORAD. So in spectacular but now commonplace fashion, Avro designed and flew the CF-105 Arrow in only 5 years from 1953-1958. Five Arrows flew by 1959 and achieved 95% of their performance requirements. When the program was cancelled on February 20, 1959 Avro had become the 3rd largest company in Canada and some 25,000 employees lost their jobs either directly or as subcontractors.
Conspiracy theories vacillate between both extremes. The CF-105 was a dud so it had to be cancelled to stop the financial hemorrhage. The CF-105 was 20 years ahead of any aircraft so it had to be cancelled to prevent embarrassing our Allies. Perhaps most accurately, the plane represented cutting edge technology in the refinements of its subsystems of which many would not see widespread implementation for many decades. To reduce weight, metallic bonding techniques instead of conventional riveting was used. The skin was composed of magnesium, titanium and Inconel X to withstand the high temperatures caused by the atmospheric friction of supersonic flight. The weapons carriage was totally internalized (as in the F-22 and F-35). It featured the first production fly by wire system where the control column is not hard linked by cables or hydraulic lines to control surfaces but by electrical signals also giving way for the aircraft to maintain its own flight stability automatically without demanding constant human intervention. This was not seen until 1976 in the F-16. The plane had only one central computer to determine all flight parameters to reduce weight and complexity. Confusing circular display gauges were replaced with linear rectangular gauges. Automatic fuel transfer negated the need for the pilot to select which tanks to feed the engines and an unheard of 4000 psi hydraulic system allowed for smaller piping and reduction in weight not seen until 1974 in the Rockwell B1 bomber. The Orenda Iroquois PS13 jet engine was another breakthrough. Extensive use of titanium and titanium alloys, a twin spool configuration, and a smaller combustion chamber made the engine 800-1000 pounds lighter and a rating of 20,000 pounds of thrust exceeded the competition by 50%. The first five Mark 1 Arrows touched Mach 1.9 and an altitude of 58,000 feet using Pratt & Whitney J57 engines. The Mark 2 Arrows equipped with the Iroquois engines were expected to reach Mach 2.5 with a combat ceiling of 68,000 feet.
Although it was the Liberal Party and Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent who initiated the Arrow program in 1955, there was dissent at the time from the Chief of the General Staff, Lt General Guy Simmonds who expressed that the Arrow program was wrong in principle because “the development of guided missiles (ICBMs) was proceeding so rapidly that manned aircraft would be obsolete”.
The CIA perpetuated this bit of propaganda while in reality it would take decades before guidance systems improved and warhead numbers increased to levels making the ICBM nuclear threat the predominant component of the mutually assured destruction doctrine. Unfortunately this was an era before repeated intelligence failures became commonplace. Today we are all cynical about the CIA’s astuteness given its failure to predict 9/11, the inability to find Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, the collapse of Afghanistan to the Taliban within a week and the hollow threat of Putin’s Russian Army to conduct war.
In 1957, John Diefenbaker became Prime Minister and his Conservative party formed the government. Cancelling the Arrow project initiated by the opposition political party might be reasoned as responsible fiscal stewardship of the country. Over $300 million has already been invested in development costs and the projected aircraft costs of $3.8 million apiece would add $400 million annually to expenditures for the next four years. $400 million was equivalent to the value of Canada’s annual wheat harvest. Reversing the policy direction of the government is the fundamental weakness of democracy …. at least that is what I learned while watching the only English TV channel in Shanghai, while visiting a few years ago. The Chinese Communist government is superior to the Western Democratic model because the continuous reelection of Premier Xi (Premier for life) guarantees an efficient and consistent government. Which is perhaps why China managed to build a high speed rail link between Shanghai and Beijing in only … three years. Canada has been contemplating a similar rail link between Windsor to Quebec City, an equivalent distance over much easier terrain, for … 4 to 5 decades. But of course, I jest. The political parties in Canada are no where near as partisan as in the US and government policy is generally chosen to reflect the will of the people, because the memory of the Canadian voter is strong. That is the prime virtue of a democracy, the peaceful transition of power reflecting the will of the majority. To remove Premier Xi would require a national revolt and unimaginable loss of life.
As it turns out, costs were not the reason for cancellation. Defense expenditures in 1953 were 9% of GDP and dropped to 6% in 1957 (and currently, we have trouble meeting the 2% of GDP NATO guideline). During the same period the GDP rose by 13% while the real value of defense costs declined by 20% so the economy would be able to bear the extra costs without difficulty. There would be no new tax increases to levy on Canadian citizens.
Diefenbaker has written in his memoirs that the American push for a fixed missile defense system (the Boeing produced Bomarcs) would reduce the need from 19 squadrons of Arrows to about nine squadrons or about 100 aircraft making the unit price of each more than double the price of buying ready made American models. The Arrow program was cancelled not because it was unaffordable, but because it appeared to deliver less bang per buck. But the American strategy was based on the Bomarcs carrying nuclear payloads, as well as all interceptor aircraft armed with the nuclear tipped Genie missile since it would have to be a nuclear detonation that would ensure the total destruction of Soviet ICBMs and nuclear bomb carrying Soviet bombers in the air so as not allow the wreckage to crash and detonate later on the ground. Knowing Diefenbaker’s principled position of not allowing nuclear weapons on Canadian soil or with Canadian forces based in Europe, the Americans promised a conventional Bomarc warhead which never materialized. Diefenbaker somehow never suspected this truth, because he claims he would have rejected the Bomarcs on that issue alone. The Americans then made the decision more attractive by paying 2/3rds of the costs of the Bomarcs which should have raised suspicion. Careful attention would have revealed several members of Congress expressing grave doubts about the effectiveness of the Bomarc program and ultimately it was a US government bailout of a failing Boeing project. The USAF began phasing out their own Bomarc bases in 1964, only two years after the two Canadian bases had become operational. The fact that the original plan called for 52 US Bomarc sites which was downsized to 16 and finally only 8 were built is troubling enough. The range of the missile was about 400 miles meaning they had to be placed close to urban centers and as a result there was no coverage for the western half of the continent and Canada was responsible for making up the deficit on its own. Which resulted in the purchase of 66 F-101 Voodoo interceptors, with performance inferior to even the Mark 1 Arrow. That were previously owned by the US Air National Guard.
It’s hard to understand the Diefenbaker decision given that clearly the most effective protection for Canadian cities against a Soviet nuclear attack, whether they be ICBM or bombers, would be to intercept them in the sub Arctic which would only be feasible with the original 19 squadrons of Arrows. And with the hindsight of the Gulf War, we learned that the US Patriot anti missile system actually destroyed less 9% of the rather crude Iraqi SCUD missiles fired at Saudi Arabia and Israel. The optimistic stats published during the height of the war were not exactly lies, they represented SCUD interceptions but not their destruction. It’s doubtful the 3 decade older Bomarc system would have intercepted anything.
The final piece of the puzzle takes place in August 1958 with the first talks between the US and Canada to discuss the concept of Defense Production Sharing where both countries would pool their resources and eliminate any cross border restrictions. Both countries would benefit and Canadian companies would have access to the huge US defense industry and be able to bid on contracts. In reality, the partnership was not as equitable as it should have been. In a recently declassified DND memo dated just after the cancellation of the Arrow program states: “The present strong interest of Canada production sharing is the result of the decision made by the Canadian government in September  to curtail drastically the CF-105 supersonic interceptor program and to introduce into the Canadian air defense system the US produced BOMARC missile …” and “The decision to terminate the CF 105 was predicated in part on the the agreements to provide Canada with better chances to share in the production of defense items of mutual interest.” These items being components and the occasional piecemeal complex major part made in Canada for the US defense industry and NOT complete products. Like an Avro Arrow. In other words the US government would only entertain Canadian involvement IF the Arrow program was cancelled. What the Arrow program represented to the US, as an economic threat or an unwanted aviation rival, remains unknown.
The final controversy is the seemingly vengeful act in which the Canadian government ordered the whole scale destruction of every aircraft, manufactured component and plans connected to the Arrow program. Nothing was spared and everything was reduced to scrap. This act has often been attributed to Diefenbaker himself and in the 1997 movie he is depicted as reacting in embarrassment to the idea that US, British and French air forces were interested in buying any completed aircraft or engines and that he wanted to physically erase the whose unpleasant affair from the collective memory of the nation. But Diefenbaker insists he had nothing to do with that. The final act of destruction was performed several months after the cancellation announcement and would not have been delayed for so long if the order had been issued from the Prime Minister’s Office. The Department of Defense Production (DDP) had final say in the disposition of the Crown’s property and in this particular case nothing was preserved because there was an existence of a mole code named “Lind” in the Avro factory who supplied technical information to the Soviets via his KGB handler, code named “Gideon”.
The cancellation of the Avro Arrow was not just an injury to Canadian prestige or the disruption of a national dream. It continues to reverberate financial consequences six decades later. The French were serious about purchasing Orenda Iroquois engines for their very commercially export successful Mirage fighter jets. Notwithstanding foreign interest, the Arrow could have been modified to see active service to this day. One doesn’t have to look far for an example. The McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle fighter has been in constant production and service for 50 years owing to continual updates and modifications. Only recently it was leaked that Ottawa authorized the purchase of the first 16 F-35 fighters for $7 billion, a price considerably higher than other Allies have been paying and difficult to reconcile with the plan to purchase 88 aircraft for a price between $15 to $19 billion with a full life cycle cost estimated at $77 billion. This is money that could have remained in Canada and supporting Canadian workers. As the closest US ally, we certainly aren’t always treated like we are.