Today, Canada’s lawmakers and defense leaders procured the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) as the future of Ottawa’s fighter force. The JSF, of course, has its roots south of the border, and would be another American-made jet, including the CF-101, CF-104, CF-5 (CF-116), and CF-18 (CF-188), procured to form the nucleus of Canada’s air defense. Things have changed since the 1950s, when Canada planned for its next fighter to be the most advanced in the world and intended to develop and build the aircraft on home turf.
The aircraft was the Avro CF-105 Arrow.
It was a white dream. It struck the eye with its robust beauty. It won the heart with its promise that it would bolster defenses at the height of the Cold War and lead Canada’s aircraft industry into a bright future. Almost 78 feet long and weighing 57,000 pounds, it was a behemoth built for speed. Industry and defense experts envisioned squadrons of this twin-engined, delta-winged supersonic interceptor guarding North America’s skies and spearheading a vibrant aerospace infrastructure. The CF-105 was big and it fell hard. In the end, only six were built, and Canada never manufactured an indigenous warplane again.
In the 1950s, A. V. Roe Canada (or Avro) approached the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) with a plan for a colossal, triangle-shaped interceptor that would defend against Soviet bombers in a trans-polar nuclear war. The Arrow looked like its namesake, emerged from revolutionary development methods, and had avionics and aerodynamic features as advanced as any in the world. It promised to introduce a new aircraft engine with unprecedented thrust and reliability.
When technical and cost issues stymied the original plan for power by two Rolls-Royce RB-106 turbojets, Avro embarked on an ambitious scheme to introduce the Canadian-designed, 19,350 (dry)/26,000-30,000 pound thrust (in afterburner) TR-13 Orenda Iroquois engine for the CF-105. Like the aircraft it was to propel, the Iroquois was to be revolutionary – simpler, easier to maintain, and more powerful than other engines of the time. But it got off to a late start, so when the CF-105 rolled out of the Malton, Ontario factory it was powered by substitute, 16,470 (dry)/24,000-pound (in afterburner) thrust Pratt & Whitney J75-P-3 turbojets.
The J75 was inadequate for the size and weight of the big white Arrow and was deemed a stopgap measure. The first five aircraft off the production line would be Mark 1s, powered by the J75, while the sixth and subsequent planes would be Mark 2s with the Iroquois.
The Arrow had a semi-pressurized cabin and a crew of two, with a back-seat navigator to control the radar and navigation systems.
The Arrow’s “Sputnik Moment”
At a rollout ceremony with 13,000 attendees on Oct. 4, 1957, Canadian officials expected the world to be awed by the interceptor that would fly well above 50,000 feet and reach speeds beyond Mach 2. But the world was busy looking elsewhere: on that day, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial space satellite in history. Policymakers, press and public were immediately in awe of technology – but of Soviet, not Canadian, technology.
Not noticed at all, five years before the first microchip, was that the CF-105 emerged from the factory doors not as an experimental prototype but fully ready for operational duty with the RCAF. Using an analogue-era version of computer simulation, Avro bypassed the experimental stage before the Arrow ever flew.
That happened on March 25, 1958 when project pilot Janusz “Zura” Zurakowski took the Arrow aloft for the first time and reported only minor problems.
At a time when the similarly-sized Republic XF-103 and North American XF-108 Rapier were being abandoned in the design stage down in the lower forty-eight, the CF-105 Arrow fully deserved to be called the most impressive fighter in the world: It was almost 78 feet long, had a wingspan of 50 feet and carried enough fuel to fly at Mach 1 for almost three hours without refueling. It was the first military production aircraft to adopt “fly-by-wire” technology, with a computer assisting the pilot in operating the flight control systems. Decades before planes like the JSF needed an internal weapons bay to preserve stealth, the CF-105 had a weapons bay larger than the B-29 Superfortress and could carry every ordnance item in Canadian inventory. It was meant to be an interceptor – development of its air-to-air missile armament was stalled and became an Achilles’ heel in the program – but it could as easily have been a bomber. A digital version of the CF-105 would still be one of the most advanced warplanes in the world if it were flying today.
The Orenda Iroquois engine was tested on a B-47 Stratojet borrowed from the United States. One observer wrote that the Iroquois, mounted on the rear fuselage, was so powerful that the B-47’s six engines had to be shut down when it was running. Avro built the first Iroquois-powered CF-105 Arrow Mark 2 and plans were undertaken to use the aircraft in several record-setting efforts – partly in the forlorn hope of yielding U.S. and British purchases of the Arrow – but in the end the Mark 2 never flew and remains, today, a question mark.
In autumn 1958, the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, elected the previous year, cancelled Canada’s indigenous air-to-air missile intended for the CF-105 and then set its sights on the CF-105 itself. On Feb. 20, 1959, a day ever after dubbed “Black Friday” by Arrow advocates, the Diefenbaker government cancelled the CF-105 program, and all existing airframes were destroyed. Over the years, the myth has taken hold that CF-105 planemakers secretly saved one example and stashed it away – but it has not been seen since. Arrows in Canadian museums today are replicas.
Canada subsequently invested in the U.S.-built Bomarc surface-to-air missile in a costly and questionable program that could have funded dozens of CF-105s – 135 of them, according to one analyst.
To be sure, the CF-105 Arrow offered “a profusion of technical difficulties and cost issues,” as Bill Gunston wrote in Early Supersonic Fighters of the West (London: Ian Allan, 1976). Referring to the “unfortunate RCAF” that was humbled into accepting McDonnell CF-101B Voodoos to replace the ill-advised Bomarc in the 1960s, Gunston wrote that the CF-105 “could have been a complete technical success.” Terry Panopalis, a Canadian aviation analyst, said in a telephone interview that, “If we had proceeded with the Arrow we could have dominated military aviation for decades.”
It might have been. But it was not to be.