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The glory days of the Clunk

 Illustration by Malcolm Jones

The legendary CF-100 Canuck was the only all-Canadian jet interceptor-fighter to enter mass production back in the 1950s. Note the careful wording. “Mass production.” The Avro Arrow of course was a revolutionary Canadian-designed delta-winged interceptor, but it was destined for limited destruction rather than mass production.

The design work on the CF-100 started at Avro Canada in 1946 with the maiden flight of the first prototype in January 1950. Those who flew the CF-100 affectionately dubbed it the Clunk, in honour of the loud—yes, you guessed it—“clunk” that reverberated throughout the aircraft when the front landing gear retracted after takeoff.

This strikes me as a very Canadian nickname—typically humble, understated, modest, and arguably a little too literal. No majestic eagles, or hawks, or falcons, or other suitably glorious and dramatic references. Nope. We just called it the Clunk.

The CF-100 was a very successful aircraft and it did its job admirably. It ably flew under North American Aerospace Defence Command (Norad) against Soviet intruders and under North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with four squadrons based in Europe. But it did have its drawbacks, particularly if you were its pilot, or worse, its navigator.

Doug Munro writes about the Clunk with humour and affection in the wonderful book he co-edited called Night Fighters: Stories from the Flyers of Canada’s All-Weather Fighter Force, Canada and Europe 1953-1984. The flight crew certainly did have some complaints about the Clunk.

The flight instruments seemed to have been arrayed in the cockpit by someone who had never even been in a plane, let alone flown one. Instruments that were central to the operation of the aircraft seemed to be shoved off to the very outskirts of the pilot’s field of vision, if they could see them at all.

Moreover, less consequential dials that pilots seldom checked were centrally located and very easy to see.

Perhaps the most egregious of these instrumentation location offences was the original positioning of the compass. Now I’m no pilot, but my father-in-law, retired major Bill Naylor, flew CF-100s. He informed me in no uncertain terms that having easy visual access to the compass while in flight was generally a good idea.

When the Mark III model was tested, the compass was carefully positioned—more accurately, hidden—directly behind the control column. When the test pilot complained, you would have expected the compass to be repositioned to a more prominent location on the instrument panel. You would have been wrong.

Instead, the upper part of the control column was actually bent about 30 degrees to the right. This rendered the compass somewhat visible but left many Clunk pilots with a lean when they walked after long flights.

Navigators had an even worse time of it. Avro engineers designed the rear navigator’s cockpit to accommodate humans of any size, provided they were no taller than five feet and sported unusually short legs but extremely long arms.

It was cramped to say the least.

There were also complaints from the navigators about the positioning of the button that lowers the undercarriage in an emergency. The occupant of the rear cockpit apparently had to unstrap, somehow turn around, and then kneel on the seat to gain adequate leverage to activate the button. Tough to do at the best of times, let alone in the midst of an in-flight emergency.

Let’s not even begin to talk about the faulty ejection seats that occasionally fired without warning during normal operations when I’m quite sure the pilot would have preferred to remain in the plane.

Despite these challenges, the CF-100 was a solid performer. We even sold a few to Belgium. They were quite easy to fly, had a solid range, and as Munro noted, “there was room on board for two sets of golf clubs.”

When I mentioned this little-known fact to my father-in-law, he told me another golf-related story involving a military aircraft. In addition to flying CF-100s, Naylor also crewed on multi-engine planes including the Argus and the Aurora.

Apparently, an Argus was once flying out of the Maritime patrol base in the Netherlands and lost an engine mid-flight. They were diverted to Leuchars, Scotland, not far from the renowned St. Andrews golf course, for a day or two of repairs.

As the story goes, long before the disabled Argus even touched down in Leuchars, the crew had already booked tee times on the famed old course.


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