Black Friday: The Avro Arrow tragedy

-February 20, 2015

There's nothing fun about having an exciting and challenging project you've put your heart and soul into cancelled, especially just as it's coming to fruition. But that's exactly what happened to the Avro Canada team on Black Friday, February 20, 1959, as it was ramping production of its stunning new bird, the Arrow.

Aviation enthusiasts the world over and many an average Canadian know the sad story of the Avro Arrow project. In the early 1950s, ambitious requirements were put forward by the government for the design of a supersonic defence interceptor, and Avro Canada obtained the contract.

To make a very long and complex story short, after succeeding quite brilliantly in meeting and exceeding the design requirements, and after five planes had been built and flight-tested, with more in production, the government unceremoniously axed the program. With barely a word of warning, the planes experienced what today we might call a teardown – except here, the cutting torch was the tool of choice, not a screwdriver. Today, very little survives as evidence the plane ever existed.

Standing under the nose wheel well was an experience I'll never forget.

The cancellation struck a major blow to Canada's aerospace industry, and many Avro engineers got snapped up by the US space program. I expect their contributions can be traced through to the moon landings and beyond. Others went to A.V. Roe in England, the company that had originally spawned Avro.

It's no surprise that books have been written about the Arrow. Here are the ones on my bookshelf:

Two factual books, and a fantasy illustrated short story

In the realm of docu-drama, Dan Aykroyd starred in the TV movie The Arrow, aired in 1997. I remember some people found the first half – which covered the design and development of the airplane – a bit boring, but I think this would be the best part for us engineering types. I certainly loved it.

Awaiting my attention are a pair of Arrow models.

Personally, the story of the Arrow affects me deeply, and I think the reason stems from the engineering aspect – imagining the intense involvement and pride the thousands of engineers and technicians must have felt towards their plane, and the shock they must have experienced at its cancellation and wanton destruction. I'm sure most of us have never had such a major project pulled out from under our feet.

The closest in my own experience was a dental optical coherence tomography system for which I was designing the electronics. Not only were the electronics a great challenge, spanning a rich gamut of exciting technologies, but there were lasers and other exotic optical components involved, and the end product would work directly towards improving quality-of-life for anyone who ever finds themselves in a dentist's chair. But, you guessed it, funding ran out.

RL 201 over Niagara Falls – the tourists that day got to see two remarkable sights.

Projects get cancelled all the time, for many reasons. Are you the type who gets upset, or do you just move on? Even a trivial project contains some of the blood, sweat, and tears of its creator(s), and it is satisfying to see our efforts turned into reality. But when the project is as massive as an Avro Arrow, cancellation can disrupt lives, causing everything from depression and dislocation to suicide. I truly hope none of us ever has to suffer through such a trauma. Have you had to deal with any significant cancellations in your career?

The Arrow's first flight

A remarkable contemporary Avro "documentary" about the plane.

It appears Britain's aerospace industry suffered through a very similar ordeal with their cancelled TSR2 aircraft project, not long after the Arrow.

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