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The Avro Arrow: Canada’s Favorite Delta Wing

The early Cold War era was a time of massive development of aircraft and flight-based armaments. Most of the examples from this period come from the USA, USSR, or possibly the UK and France. However, perhaps the most interesting of any military aircraft from that era was the Canadian AVRO ARROW. The airplane, designed in the 1950s, included one of the most unique and engaging designs in history, including its iconic delta wing. Despite its status as a cult favorite, only a small handful of Arrows were ever built, and they were all destroyed shortly after completion. In the end, the plane’s legacy had as much to do with the political controversy surrounding it as that iconic design. Let’s discuss the Avro Arrow.

Origins

In the years following the end of World War Two, the USSR began to develop long-range bombers capable of dropping atomic weapons on distant enemies. The typical bomber was a high-speed, high altitude aircraft capable of reaching industrial centers in Canada by flying over the Arctic Circle. The best defense against these long-range bombers were lightning-fast interceptors capable of cutting off an approaching bomber before hitting its target.

In 1946, the company responsible for building the best Canadian aircraft was A.V. Roe Canada Ltd., also known as Avro. Over the next seven years, Avro built the formidable Avro CF-100. Introduced in 1953, the CF-100 stayed in service in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) until 1981. However, as was the nature of Cold War weaponry, by the time it was introduced to the RCAF fleet in 1953, the CF-100 was already somewhat outdated compared with the jet-powered bombers in development by the USSR. 

Avro CF-100s

So, in 1952, the RCAF put together a new set of requirements for the next generation of interceptors. The paper was called the “Final Report of the All-Weather Interceptor Requirements Team.” Later that year, it was submitted to Avro, establishing the first set of principles that the new interceptor would need to adhere to.

The second set of principles was published the following year in 1953. After Avro reviewed the Report of Requirements, they teamed up with the RCAF to determine the technical and performance specs required for the kind of supersonic interceptor that they were looking for. This culminated in the RCAF Specification AIR 7-3, which, combined with the Report of Requirements, created a specific set of qualifications and details of what this next-gen interceptor would look like. 

A team of RCAF officers and engineers led by a man named Ray Footit toured aircraft manufactures throughout the US, UK, and France. Avro had experience building aircraft based on designs by other companies. But Footit’s team found that there was nothing in the works anywhere that fit their specs. So, they determined to have Avro design it themselves.

SPECS AND REQUIREMENTS

The first and most important aspect of the new interceptor was speed. Supersonic aircraft were still relatively new, and many struggled to deal with wave drag, a kind of drag that only affects planes approaching Mach 1. Avro determined to go at this problem with a solution discovered by German engineers during WW2. The research showed that variances in the shape of a plane’s wings were the main factor in reducing drag and crossing the sound barrier. 

Simultaneously, the plane needed large enough wings to provide space for armaments and additional fuel. Fuel space was particularly important, as the early jet engines of the 1950s were extremely inefficient. The optimal wing choice to meet these requirements was the delta-wing, a wing shaped in the form of a triangle. Not only does the wing shape allow for additional storage, but the increased surface area allows the plane to create more lift at higher altitudes than planes with smaller wings. While the delta-wing sacrificed some speed and maneuverability at lower altitudes, these disadvantages were minimized because interceptors were rarely called upon to do anything besides fly in straight lines at high altitudes.

As for the more specific configurations of the AIR 7-3 specs, the RCAF requested a plane with a range of 556 km (345 miles) for a routine low-speed mission and 370 km (230 mi) for a high-speed interception mission. It needed a cruising speed of Mach 1.5 at an altitude of 21,000 m (70,000 ft) and the ability to take off from a 1,830 m (6,000 ft) runway. It would need to maintain speed and altitude while sustaining 2g of force during high-altitude maneuvers, and it must be able to turn around on the ground within 10 minutes.

Avro submitted their design for these specs in May of 1953 for a plane that was officially referred to as the C-105. Their plans were essentially for a two-man version of one of their earlier planes, but with a single delta wing built into the upper fuselage. This wing placement allowed the belly of the aircraft to be used for storing massive amounts of armaments. The plane’s engine was designated as the Rolls-Royce RB.106.

In December of 1953, the Canadian government appropriated CA$27 million (2020 US$198 million) for the project. However, the following year, the Soviets introduced a new jet bomber to their fleet, the Myasishchev M-4 Bison. Furthermore, reports from Canadian allies claimed that the Soviets were testing an early iteration of the hydrogen bomb. These two pieces of news seemed to spook the Canadian government into upping the funding for the project. So, in March of 1955, with the project already underway, the Canadian government approved an additional CA$260 million (2020 US$1.9 billion) of funding.

PRODUCTION

By mid-1954, the earliest tests began, including rudimentary computer-based testing and real-world testing with small models. The models were tested in wind tunnels and on Canadian and American military bases. The models were approximately 3 meters long, and their purpose was to determine the effectiveness of the design’s aerodynamic drag and stability. So, the prototypes were powered by NASA Nike rockets boosters, and they were a success.

One of the model planes launched from a NASA facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, reportedly reached a Mach 1.7. Following these tests, the models were crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, leading to something of an obsession with aeronautic enthusiasts, who have reportedly searched the ocean floor wherever they can to find the lost models. They have never been able to find any.

The most significant speed bump of the pre-production days involved the plane’s engine. First, the Rolls-Royce RB.106 program was canceled in 1954, forcing the team at Avro to use a backup, the Wright J67. Then, in 1955, the J67 program was canceled, forcing Avro to look for different engines again. This time, they went with the Pratt & Whitney J75 while also developing a custom engine for the plane’s future iterations. These two engine changes forced the engineering team to alter the design multiple times to account for changes in the engine’s weight and shape. However, it seemed that they had found their keeper.

Go-ahead on production was given in 1955, and the RCAF set an aggressive timetable by which they wanted the earliest Arrows completed. Avro responded with some questionable production tactics to ensure that they met that timetable. They adopted a system called the Cook-Craigie Plan. While most brand new aircraft went through several prototyping stages before factory production began, the Cook-Craigie Plan called for the first planes to be built from a factory production line. The project engineers knew right away that this was a precarious approach.

In keeping with the project’s spirit, the RCAF demanded several changes upon seeing the earliest full-scale mockups of the plane in 1956. They requested expensive state-of-the-art missiles and weapons systems, even though Avro’s plans included more affordable yet just as capable systems. So, the design was changed to accommodate these new systems. Of course, the new weapons system would take several more years to complete, but this was not a concern for the RCAF. This kind of change and cancelation typified much of the Arrow’s production history, causing delays that led to increased costs and the Canadian government’s frustration.

ROLLOUT AND SPECS

Despite all of the problems, the first Avro Arrow was completed in late 1957, with an official rollout date of October 4th, 1957. The team planned a colossal ceremony and invited 13,000 aeronautics enthusiasts and press members to witness the event. However, they received next to no publicity that week, as their rollout date happened to be the same day that the Sputnik satellite was launched. 

The first flight took place 6 months later, on March 25th, 1958. The plane wasn’t quite finished yet, as few of the armaments were ready, so the engineering team added ballasts to balance the plane’s weight. The test pilot for that first flight was Janusz Zurakowski, and his tests revealed no significant faults. The aircraft reached supersonic speeds on its third flight and, on its seventh, broke 1,600 km/h (1,000 mph) while climbing upwards of 15,000 m (50,000 ft). There are some small discrepancies in the reported max speed, but it most likely topped out around Mach 1.95. Over the next 18 months, four more Mk1s (the earliest iteration of the Arrow) were built and delivered to the RCAF.

The final product was a beautiful structure, sleek and dramatic, with its delta wing style. The plane was 23.7 m (78 ft) long and 6.45 m (21 ft) tall, with a wingspan of 15 m (50 ft). The total wing area reached a massive 114 sq m (1,225 sq ft), a characteristic found on virtually all delta-wing planes.

The cruise speed at 11,000 m (36,000 ft) was 976 km/h (606 mph), placing it just below Mach 1. The combat range was 670 km (410 mi), placing it well above the RCAF efficiency standards in the pre-planning stages. Its service ceiling maxed out at 16,000 m (53,000 ft), and, though the max recorded speed was 2,104 km/h (1,307 mph), many of the engineers and pilots believed it had the potential to break Mach 2.

POLITICAL DEMISE

Since the program’s earliest days in 1953, the Arrow had been a target of civilian and military criticism as a poor use of money. The leadership of the Canadian Army and Navy were highly critical of the extensive funds given to the Air Force. Politically, it was seen as an example of rampant liberal spending. In 1957, a Progressive Conservative named John Diefenbaker won the election for the Prime Minister of Canada after campaigning on reduced spending.

Shortly after his election, Diefenbaker signed the NORAD AGREEMENT with the United States, making Canada a partner in America’s command and control. This included the opportunity to coordinate with the USA’s defense of North America through the use of the SAGE system, which was focused on using anti-aircraft missiles to defend against air-based attacks. Another new priority was defending against long-range ballistic missiles, or even attacks from space, as the Sputnik signified.

Altogether, it meant that the Avro Arrow looked like an expensive piece of equipment that wasn’t quite as effective as it was initially supposed to be. It looked like a weapon that was meant to stop an enemy that simply wasn’t there anymore. Furthermore, many of the project’s components, including the armaments system, were still yet to be completed. 

On February 20th, 1959, Diefenbaker announced the cancelation of the Avro Arrow program. He cited the changing threats to Canada’s defense and the massive costs of building the new weapon. While the SAGE program, which Diefenbaker eventually joined, would cost just as much as the Arrow program, it was seen as a more realistic counter to the Soviet Union’s potential threat.

The day became known as Black Friday in the Canadian aviation industry, as 15,000 Avro employees found themselves without jobs, and Canada’s aircraft manufacturing industry never reached the same heights. This led to a brain drain as the best and brightest engineers from Canada left for the United States, where they could continue to work on ambitious and expensive projects that would take advantage of their expertise. A team of 25 elite Avro engineers joined NASA to play a massive role in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects of the following decades.

AFTERMATH 

Following the project’s demise, the Canadian government ordered everything related to the Arrow project to be destroyed. They feared the program was infiltrated by Soviet spies, a fear that may have been justified, and that any knowledge of the plane and its weapon systems needed to be destroyed for national security purposes. These orders were mostly followed, as the only remaining pieces of the five Arrows are a single nose section and two wing panels. They can now be seen at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.

In retrospect, it seems that the Avro Arrow was destined to never be built on a large scale, perhaps because it would have been so spectacular. While the production and design problems were dealt with, maybe the biggest problem with the airplane was who was building it. 

World War Two was an excuse for excessive spending on military weaponry and infrastructure, but costs soared as technology improved throughout the Cold War. As such, the number of countries that could justify building such pricey jet-engine aircraft dwindled until it was essentially just two countries, the USA and the USSR. It’s disappointing that no fully-functional Avro Arrows exist, but it seems that, in retrospect, its cancellation may have been a prudent choice.

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