In the mid-1950s, engineers from A.V. Roe, based in Malton, Ontario, launched nine Nike rockets from Point Petre, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. On board were one-eighth-scale models of a new supersonic fighter, complete with instruments to transmit data back to shore as they soared nearly 6,000 metres in the air and fourteen kilometres over the lake. The engineers, trying to test aerodynamic theories and conditions they could not simulate in wind tunnels, never planned on recovering their models. But for years, treasure hunters have searched the lake’s floor for a key piece of Canadian aviation history: Avro Arrows that actually flew.
This is a big year for the Avro Arrow, in part because February 20 was the sixtieth anniversary of the Progressive Conservative government’s shock cancellation of the Canadian-designed fighter, still in the pre-production testing stage in 1959. It was a decision that cost 25,000 jobs at A.V. Roe’s Canadian operations, along with many more in related industries. It was also a decision that launched a multitude of conspiracy theories that show no sign of fading, long after Prime Minister John Diefenbaker left office.
It’s also a big year for the Arrow because it seems the multi-year search of Lake Ontario may finally bear fruit. Last August, searchers recovered a delta-winged object, initially thought to be one of the long-lost models. It turned out to be, most likely, an early 1950s test object that may have influenced the Arrow design, as well as that of the Velvet Glove, a Canadian-designed air-to-air missile that never went into production. The search identified other objects that could be the scale models, and divers will be back in the water this summer to investigate.
Before a model has actually been retrieved, media coverage of the “discovery” has given the Arrow’s legend new life. This moment in the Arrow’s history has also prompted the author Palmiro Campagna to revisit a familiar subject.
Based in Ottawa, Campagna has spent decades trying to counter conspiracy theories around the Arrow’s demise. He followed his 1993 book, Storms of Controversy: The Secret Avro Arrow Files Revealed, with Requiem for a Giant: A.V. Roe and the Avro Arrow a decade later. His latest effort is simply titled The Avro Arrow: For the Record.
Campagna has his work cut out for him, as aviation conspiracy theorists are a tough group to beat back, and there will likely be a new round of postulation if models actually are raised this summer. If that happens, brace for a flurry of speculation (and recycled conjectures): The Arrow was killed because it cost too much. The Arrow was killed because the U.S. military-industrial complex wanted to eliminate a technically superior competitor. The Arrow was killed because it was technically flawed and couldn’t live up to supersonic specifications. Besides, A.V. Roe had been ripping off the federal government the whole time — that’s why all the records were mysteriously destroyed and planes were chopped up for scrap.
It is fair to note, as Campagna does, that the Diefenbaker government’s handling of the cancellation gave ammunition to such theorists. “The company was told to immediately cease and desist all work,” he writes, “and, most significantly, no seemingly good explanation was offered at the time for the cancellation and the ultimate physical destruction of all completed aircraft, engines, tooling, and technical information.”
Campagna’s latest attempt to set the record straight relies on proven strategy: find primary documents in the archives; get them declassified; and report on what was said, done, and included in federal records by those who determined the plane’s fate. With The Avro Arrow, he takes advantage of a new set of documents, produced from a broader access-to-information search than he had conducted previously.
While some sections of the book will be enjoyed mostly by those who love reading technical aviation manuals, there is enough to entertain and inform even those who don’t know the Arrow story (assuming they exist). Campagna has also woven sufficient contemporary references into his narrative to remind any reader of timeless aspects of Canadian defence procurement — just as relevant in today’s debates about replacement fighter jets as they were in the late 1950s.
Many of us have forgotten, or never knew, about the geopolitical climate of the 1950s, when the Soviet Union posed a real threat. With unmatched performance capabilities, the high-altitude Arrow was designed to intercept existing and perceived future supersonic bombers coming from Russia over the North Pole.
It was also the era of Sputnik 1, which the Soviets launched into low Earth orbit on October 4, 1957. Ironically, the first Arrow was publicly rolled out that same day. Campagna argues that Sputnik contributed to the death of the Arrow, as the first artificial satellite prompted a re-evaluation of strategic threats facing North America. The U.S. Air Force concluded the threat of intercontinental nuclear missiles would, within a decade, supplant the threat of nuclear bombers. That required a change in strategy.
“The American concept called for an in-depth defensive posture,” Campagna writes: “long-range aircraft backed by [surface-to-air] missiles like the Bomarc and possibly short range aircraft and anti-ICBM missiles, all controlled by a sophisticated electronic environment like the American Semi-Automatic Ground Environment or SAGE system.” Canadian leaders accepted U.S. military logic, which doomed the Arrow.
If North America now faced a missile threat, the 500 to 600 Arrows that Canada planned in 1953 were excessive. Maybe only 100 would suffice. That would increase the unit cost, which was otherwise affordable. Campagna goes on, “The problem was not the cost of the Arrow alone but the combined cost of Arrow, Bomarc, SAGE, additional gap-filler radar, and research against the ICBM.” Meeting our NORAD commitments would be expensive. (Another reminder of different times: Canada was spending 6 percent of its GDP on defence in 1957, down from a peak of 9 percent in 1953. Today, we spend about 1.2 percent, with the Liberal government targeting 1.4 percent by 2026–27.)
Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives concluded that such spending was beyond Canada’s budgetary capability, even with the United States offering to pay for two-thirds of the Bomarc arsenal. Something had to give, and it was the Arrow. Instead of building a smaller number of aircraft, the federal government concluded it would be cheaper to kill the Arrow program altogether, and to buy an off-the-shelf fighter from the United States.
Of course, as often happens with military planning, the assumptions of one decade turned out to be wrong in the next. The U.S. began to phase out its Bomarc missiles by 1964, only two years after they entered service in Canada. Less than ten years later, Canada closed its two Bomarc bases.
“The Arrow was cancelled because the piloted-bomber threat was seen as diminishing in face of the new threat from missiles,” Campagna explains. “The Bomarc, it was erroneously believed, could handle the diminishing bomber threat; further, it was claimed to be less expensive. As a result, the Arrow was deemed obsolete as a defensive weapon system and therefore useless, and it was decided that there was no justification for spending any more money on it at all.”
Campagna is also quick to pour cold water on contemporary arguments that the Liberal government’s cancellation of an anticipated F-35 purchase in 2015 represents an opportunity for Canada to get back into the fighter jet business and revive our national Arrow dream: “The Arrow was not some legendary super-aircraft whose myth has grown over the years. It was simply a highly advanced achievement at the leading edge of aircraft technology in a very complex environment that by all accounts had tremendous potential but was cut short.”
While the Arrow was “ahead of its time” sixty years ago, that doesn’t mean “it could be ‘time-tunneled’ into the future, to go up against today’s modern aircraft and missiles.”
A loss of engineering talent followed the Arrow’s cancellation and marked a significant setback for Canadian industrial development and capability. Twenty-five engineers went from A.V. Roe to NASA, where they played significant roles in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. Others went to Europe to work on the supersonic Concorde passenger jet and other aviation projects. This is a costly brain-drain story that has repeated itself throughout Canada’s industrial history, with echoes in the death of Nortel, in the early 2000s, and the ongoing demise of large Canadian players in the global mining industry.
Military procurement today echoes the abandonment of the Arrow, too. Campagna estimates that killing it cost at least $412 million — not unlike the $478-million price tag involved in 1993 when Jean Chrétien’s Liberals cancelled the purchase of EH-101 helicopters, which Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives had ordered to replace our aging Sea Kings. And in many ways, debates around military operations also feel decidedly Arrow:
The missile gap had been promoted in hopes of accelerating missile developments in the United States and in the mistaken belief the Soviets were leading in this area. It would not be the first time nor the last that intelligence data would be used to further an American cause, as those familiar with the war on Iraq and Saddam Hussein in March 2003 will attest.
The Conservative government’s decision in 2010 to buy the F-35 with no competitive bidding process had its own set of strategic questions associated with it. It was not preceded by public discussion of a fighter jet’s role in Canada’s military future. Do we still need an interceptor like the CF-18, for example, which the stealth F-35 was supposed to replace? Is an aircraft that can provide ground support for troops now more valuable? Should our military have similar equipment to that of our allies? These all remain to be answered as the Liberal government edges toward a decision on replacing planes bought in the late 1980s, with no guarantee that current strategic planning will be any more prescient than it was in the past.
But what of the secretive decision to destroy all the documents related to the Arrow program? Why cut up the five test aircraft? Or the other three in production? What was the government trying to hide? These are the questions that popular readers, beyond the aviation fan base, surely care the most about.
Campagna notes there was likely a Soviet spy within the Arrow project, but he does not fully explain why the government blundered so badly in its public relations efforts. He does, however, dismiss those who claim Diefenbaker personally ordered the destruction. There is no evidence for that, he concludes, and extant documents reveal no mystery about the source of the order:
It was the minister of national defence, acting on recommendations from the chief of the air staff, who ultimately ordered the physical destruction of the Arrow. The procedure followed was similar to that which would be followed today. While one might expect the prime minister to have been consulted, there was no compelling reason for that, since the Arrow was treated as just another piece of military hardware to be disposed of.
Campagna takes a time-honoured approach to countering conspiracy theorists, peppering The Avro Arrow with extensive notes, copies of documents, and detailed photos. He even includes a famous aerial shot of the five condemned Arrows in front of a hangar, waiting for the cutting torches.
Of course, today such a photo is enough to fuel social media conspiracy theorists for weeks. And a quarter century after Campagna’s first book, with treasures surely to rise from Lake Ontario, Arrow conspiracy theories live on, nurturing the dream of those who argue Canada could still do now what it walked away from in 1959.
That’s a dream Campagna is happy to shatter. “Why even try regenerating a military aircraft industry when a brighter future could be had in other areas,” he asks. He points to advanced drone development, artificial intelligence, medical and environmental technologies, advanced security software developments, new quantum information processing. We are, after all, a country rich in ideas.
Whether it’s fighter jets or AI, Canadian governments like to talk innovation as if it’s a national treasure. Far too often, though, we as a country have watched promised innovations die or be realized by others. The story of the Arrow reminds us of a troubling cycle Canada has yet to break.