Face To Face On The Avro Arrow

January 1, 2014 by Legion Magazine

Did the Canadian government make the right decision in February 1959 to cancel the Avro Arrow project?


Author and publisher Marc-Andre Valiquette of Montreal says NO. Researcher and writer Russell Isinger of Saskatoon says YES

Valiquette has written and published the four-book series Destruction of a Dream, The Tragedy of Avro Canada and the CF-105 Arrow. In 1997, Isinger completed his graduate thesis titled The Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow Programme: Decisions And Determinants. Both men continue to research and write on this controversial subject.

Avro Arrow [PHOTO: CF PHOTO]

Avro Arrow




On Feb. 20, 1959, the John Diefenbaker Government announced its decision to cancel the Avro Arrow project. This resulted not only in the loss of a promising aircraft and turbojet engine; it was also the virtual disintegration of Canada’s aviation industry in the aftermath of what became known as Black Friday.

It is my view that this was, for many reasons, the wrong decision. Nothing since 1976, when I started my research on the subject, has changed my belief that this decision was a political/economic one and had absolutely no basis in continental air defence requirements as military authorities saw them. And for all the reasons given for the cancellation, not one has stood the test of time.

First, cancelling the project using cost as an excuse was distorted. The money spent ($347,669,537, including termination costs) should have been seen as a production investment which could only be justified or assessed on the basis of predicted future production. It should not have been applied against the small number of test aircraft on contract at the time (37), which all critics have used then and since. Furthermore, the Financial Post’s Sept. 20, 1958, front-page article titled Your Business and the Arrow’s Fate had estimated that the government was recovering close to 65 per cent of its expenditures on the Arrow through taxation.

Second, the ensuing layoffs dealt a severe blow to the Canadian aviation industry, which at that time was highly dependent on both Avro and Orenda. These companies had made a point of establishing Canadian sources of supply for their projects. Consequently, local firms had been introduced to many new techniques and processes, while large and talented design teams had been built up. Following the project cancellation, the contributions they made to Canada’s prestige and capabilities virtually disappeared. The annihilation of Avro based on circumstances created largely by the government clearly ran against the long-term industrial interests of Canada.

Third, termination not only meant that the CF-105’s full potential could not be demonstrated (32 Arrow Mk.2s were on the assembly line), it also curtailed the Iroquois engine’s final weeks of testing. The turbojet sale to Dassault of France to equip the Mirage 4 bomber (300 engines) was consequently not concluded. This alone would have generated $120 million in export sales and saved the Arrow project $40 million. By continuing the CF-105, the flight test portion would have been completed and some aircraft would have been used operationally by the RCAF. Information gathered from the flight testing and operational service would have been invaluable when used in sales pitches to Canada’s allies.

Fourth, acquiring the Bomarc missile for the RCAF was not the answer to all of Canada’s defence problems. American high-level government representatives sold the Canadian government and some high-ranking RCAF officers on the idea that the advent of missiles meant the obsolescence of all combat aircraft. Although cheaper than the Arrow and funded almost entirely by the U.S. ($91 million out of a total of $110.8 million), the Bomarc would prove to be useless against manned bombers only a few months after being acquired. And to be effective, the missile had to be armed with nuclear warheads which Diefenbaker refused to use. In hindsight, the government’s conclusion that manned aircraft were becoming obsolete was obviously inaccurate, short-sighted, and absolutely wrong in every respect.

In the end, a great deal of the Canadian air force thinking had been predicated on the assumption that their budget was going to be restricted and therefore they could not acquire the Arrow and other military equipment. This unnecessary restriction dominated a lot of their deliberations and influenced their recommendations unfairly, since the budget envelope was not for the air force to determine. They should have stated their requirements to meet the military challenge, and leave the politicians to decide how much money would be budgeted in response. It is only by clearly defining requirements to meet anticipated defence threats that adequate funds will be secured to address them. If the initial assumption is that funding is inadequate, there can only be continuous retreat as the politicians dictate compromise and always scale back.

In 1959, Canada failed to appreciate the tremendous lead it was enjoying in military aerospace technology when it cancelled the Arrow. With Avro’s demise, the country forever lost that lead, together with the export dollars it could have earned. It was the wrong decision.



Though he can be faulted for temporizing, Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker made the right decision when he canceled the CF-105 Avro Arrow program in 1959 (and the Liberals would have done exactly the same thing if re-elected in 1957).

The Arrow’s demise was the inescapable consequence of harsh financial realities, coupled with a flawed weapons acquisition process driven by an overly ambitious RCAF, as well as dramatic strategic shifts internationally.

The decisive factor leading to cancellation was escalating cost, largely attributable to RCAF’s rapid expansion of the project to four advanced systems developed concurrently: the Arrow airframe, Iroquois engine, Sparrow II air-to-air missile, and Astra radar and electronics system.

The company, essentially an arm of the RCAF, had a “cost-plus” contract and little incentive to curb costs, and its only customer demanded nothing but the best. Concern over costs vexed military and political decision-makers as defence budgets shrank after the Korean War. Inter-service rivalry arose, and the army and navy eventually turned on the air force—itself split between rival Norad vs. NATO procurement goals—leaving the military little option but to agree to terminate the project.

It was not that the Arrow was substantially more expensive than comparable Western aircraft; it was simply the case that a middle power like Canada learned it could not afford to develop such “gold-plated” modern weapons systems on its own.

Foreign sales might have achieved the economies of scale of a longer production run, but the Arrow was too closely designed to Canada’s needs to interest other countries; though the United States and the United Kingdom expressed admiration for the Arrow, they had their own aircraft industries to support.

The RCAF bears much of the blame for the way the project unfolded.

The service was good at advancing its organizational interests during its “Golden Age,” when it absorbed 50 per cent of the defence budget and their political masters were deferential to air defence experts. But the RCAF was less adept at actually managing its homegrown weapons acquisition process. The RCAF poorly assessed the technological and strategic (not to mention financial) horizon; they demanded technology beyond state of the art and tried to obtain it as quickly as possible while—fatally—employing concurrency; they proceeded in the absence of a coherent military-industrial strategy for the aircraft industry; they did not even set up a project office to oversee all aspects of the project until 1957.

In the final analysis, procurement was driving defence policy, and the RCAF rushed headlong into a prestige project that needed to proceed in a more orderly and thoughtful manner.

Skyrocketing costs and dysfunctional project management aside, the other key factor in the Arrow’s cancellation was the strategic flux caused by the rapid pace of missile development, driven home by Sputnik in 1957 (launched on the day of the Arrow’s unveiling).

The idea of defending against nuclear attack was quickly replaced in the West by the concept of deterring it. The steady growth in the significance of the missile, both as a threat in the form of ICBMs supplanting bombers, and as a means of defence in the form of SAMs like Bomarc (which the RCAF also desperately wanted), undermined arguments for a world-beating interceptor like the Arrow (indeed, there were politicians and generals who firmly believed—erroneously—that the missile would render manned aircraft obsolete). This led inexorably to an RCAF operational requirement for interceptors in 1959 a fraction of the 500 or more that had been anticipated in 1952—a quantity which did not justify setting up a domestic production line.

With its cancellation, the Arrow flew off into legend, where it will probably soldier on far longer than if it had actually entered service. As the contemporary political analyst James Eayrs wrote: “For a force for which the sky was the environment, rather than the limit, nothing seemed impossible… The cancellation of this project seven years later, after the aircraft had reached the prototype stage of development and more than a billion dollars [would have to be] spent on it, dealt to the prestige and morale of the Air Force a blow from which it never fully recovered. Pride led to hubris, hubris to the CF-105.”  

  • sherlockh

    The question whether the Canadian government made the right decision in February 1959 to cancel the Arrow is the wrong question.

    The more interesting question is why didn’t Canada support Avro Canada. The Canadian government supported Trans-Canada Air Lines ( Winnipeg ) with their propellor driven planes, which later became Air Canada. They supported Canadair which later became part of Bombardier ( Montreal ). It is clear that Avro Canada ( Toronto ) had the technology to surpass both of these companies, if supported. Avro in Canada had the world on notice of its abilities. Even Russia sent in the KGB to see what the fuss was about.

    But no. The Canadian government forced Avro to build a fighter ( CF-100) for the Korean War when Avro had already developed a amazing jetliner CF102, right at the beginning of the jet age. The USA wanted the Jetliner converted to a military transport. How did Canada respond? They cancelled and cut up the Avro Jetliner. What a wasted opportunity.

    It is apparent that only two parties out of three can receive the goodies. Montreal got Canadair and Bombardier. Winnipeg and the western Canada got Air Canada which started as TCA.

    Toronto got the shaft by scrapping the Arrow and dissolving the brain trust which had sprung around it. Why Canada did that is the question that should be asked.

    My answer to that question is that’s how elections are won by our leaders with short term and self serving political aims.

  • Peter Dowker

    Hmmm, Sweden can develop and maintain a world class defence industry and Canada shouldn’t or can’t…. How does Mr. Isinger explain that I wonder…

  • Steve Struthers

    What’s even more interesting is that Sweden has always been neutral, and the Swedes are probably far more pacifistic than Canadians have ever been, so their arms industry seems quite incongruous. I think the real problem is that Canadians are afraid to make arms for fear of appearing less friendly and ‘nice’ to the world, and afraid of pissing off the Americans, who we rely on so heavily to handle the bulk of our national defence.

  • Craig Wood

    The CF105 was years ahead of anything that the U.S. or Britain had at that time.
    Its weapons system was years ahead of the the U.S. F106 which was a contemporary aircraft. I have read two books on the subject. One is by Murray Peden titled Fall of the Arrow and the book Avro Arrow, ISBN1-55046-047-1.
    When you read these two books you will see for yourself. that Mr. Isinger and the Canadian government was wrong in the Arrow”s cancelling.

  • Cameron Fraser

    I will not pretend to know whether it was the right decision or not but the mythologizing of the Arrow is unfortunate. I think it was a beautiful airplane, and I have a model of it on my desk, but it wasn’t the world beater that some would have us believe. Remember that the Mirage III had flown two years before the Arrow. The English Electric Lighting had flown the year before. F-4 Phantom had its first flight the same year as the Arrow. The A-12, the single seat predecessor of the SR-71, was on the drawing board when the Arrow first flew. It had it’s first flight less than four years later…the blink of an eye in aircraft development timelines.

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  • Bill McIIntosh

    How can you say that about our politiicians?

  • des

    Isinger was correct…. See the article below from a CF-100 back-seat driver who was there.

    Revisiting the Avro Arrow

    by Duane Sharp, SMS, CD, Major (retired)

    Back in the days of the cold war, I served as an RCAF navigator on the CF-100, an aircraft which has been on a pedestal in Malton for some years, a tribute to its service to Canada. As described in a previous Mississauga News article, this aircraft is now the subject of a worthwhile restoration project, led by Councillor Caroline Parrish with funding by the city and others.

    The CF, also known by several nicknames—The Clunk, The Lead Sled—was indeed a unique aircraft, an all-weather interceptor serving Canada in the Canadian skies and in Belgium, the only other country to acquire the aircraft for service in Europe under NATO, during the cold war.

    There are many stories about the CF, and with over 1,000 hours of CF flying time in Canada (Bagotville) and Germany (Zweibrucken), I played a small but active part as one of the two-man crews—pilot and navigator—who flew the all-weather interceptor over Canadian and European skies in the 1950s and 1960s.

    An interest in missile technology led me to examine the role of the manned interceptor in future air wars, and in 1958, while based in Germany, I wrote an article for the RCAF Staff College Journal, in which I foresaw the rise of anti-missile defensive systems to replace the manned interceptor, no match for the ICBMs which both Russia and the U. S. were developing as part of their air warfare arsenal.

    I was partially correct in my forecast of the evolution of defensive air warfare weapons, since what has happened over the past 60 years is what might be called the “twinning” of air defence systems: manned interceptors—almost all single-seat aircraft—have continued to be employed as defensive weapons by some countries to counter the continuing threat of the manned bomber, but missile defence systems have also been improved and proliferated, as defence against various un-manned missiles, both long-range (ICBMs) and short-range.

    As for the Arrow, there are many stories and legends which purport to explain the reasons for its cancellation. One story reports that “Dief The Chief” agonized for two years over whether to cancel the project or not, while another legend reports that when he was handed the cancellation documents, he said “sounds good.” If the first is true, it would put the lie to Rachael Williams’ reference to the “tight-fisted Conservative PM John Diefenbaker.” In essence, the rational which has always made sense to me, adherents of the Arrow notwithstanding, is that the government of the day decided that the project was far too expensive for the Canadian economy to support. Despite its admitted advanced technologies and projected capabilities, and particularly in terms of the escalating costs of the project, it was an unfortunate victim of circumstance.

    Other factors also weighed heavily on the cancellation decision. As researcher and writer Russell Isinger of Saskatoon wrote in the Canadian Legion Magazine, in 2014, “…the Arrow’s demise was the inescapable consequence of harsh financial realities, coupled with a flawed weapons acquisition process driven by an overly ambitious RCAF, as well as dramatic strategic shifts internationally.” As Isinger points out, the RCAF’s rapid expansion of the project to four advanced systems to be developed concurrently—the Arrow airframe, Iroquois engine, Sparrow II air-to-air missile, and Astra radar and electronics system—were a significant financial burden to the project.

    Other factors which were pivotal to the cancellation, and have since become part of the legend of the Arrow, are the “cost-plus” contract A.V. Roe had with the RCAF, meaning the company had little incentive to curb costs. Suffice it to say that concern over costs was a thorn in the side of military and political decision-makers, especially with sinking defence budgets after the Korean War. At the same time, that old bugabear—inter-service rivalry—reared its head and the army and navy eventually turned on the RCAF—itself split between Norad and NATO procurement goals, and at that time absorbing 50 percent of the Canadian defence budget.

    As a result, the military (RCAF) had little option but to agree to terminate the project. Of course, when a costly weapons development program like the Arrow is undertaken, countries look for foreign buyers, in this case friendly forces, and while the Arrow was not substantially more expensive than comparable Western aircraft, Canada soon became aware it could not afford to develop such “gold-plated” modern weapons systems on its own.

    How about foreign sales? The U.K. and the U.S. expressed admiration for the Arrow, but they had their own aircraft industries to support—there would definitely be no sales to these countries. As for the RCAF, critics would point out that it did not manage its homegrown weapons development and acquisition process very well, particularly in terms of assessing the technological, strategic, and especially the financial aspects of advanced weapons system development. RCAF senior weapons planners sought to develop concurrent technologies beyond “state of the art,” at a rapid pace, without a plausible military-industrial strategy for the aircraft industry. As Isinger points out, the RCAF did not even establish a project office for the Arrow until 1957.

    A revisiting of the history of the Arrow and the evolution of weapons systems which followed the Arrow saga leads to several conclusions: driving defence policy by procurement, which was the case during the development of the Arrow, is an unsatisfactory military position for any country to take. The RCAF proceeded at a rapid pace into a prestige development project where a much more orderly strategy was required, taking account of all of the considerations required when a major military project, the core of Canada’s air defence industry and its military reputation are involved. External factors occurring during this period no doubt played a role in the analyses of the weapons of air warfare, which were ongoing in the parliaments and military establishments of the time, in every country where home defence was a priority, which does not leave out many countries!

    With the concept of defending against nuclear attack no longer in vogue, deterrence was the new military strategy. As noted above, the steady growth and development of missiles, both offensive and defensive, put to question the requirement for yet another manned interceptor, no matter how fast or how high it could fly, nor which country had developed the technology.

    The development and implementation of military weapons is a long-term process. As an example of the length of time from the decision to develop a new aircraft to active duty, when the Canadian government made the decision in 1947 to develop a supersonic interceptor—the Avro Arrow—it took eight years before the first Arrow flew. Even then, the first Arrows to fly were test-bed aircraft without the electronics and weapons systems planned for later incorporation.

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