I took this picture on vacation in Ottawa last year and I enjoy showing it to fighter pilots and stumping them on aircraft identification. So far two have got it right. Most try to guess that it's a Sukhoi. Even when I tell them it was Canadian most don't get it.
Most Americans probably have never heard of this plane. I'm an aviation geek and I'd never even heard of it until I started visiting Canada regularly.
For Canadians, however, the Arrow has achieved mythical status. The legends and conspiracy theories surrounding this plane are legion.
I love the Arrow for several reasons.
First off, I love the late 50's and early 60's interceptors. They're sleek, fast and powerful. They look like they're going Mach 2 just sitting on the ramp. Second, I love aeronautical what-if's and things that might have been. Finally, I love Canada and the Arrow is part of Canada's national folklore.
So much has been written about this aircraft that I don't know what I can really add. If you're Canadian you've probably heard all this before. I'm writing as an American for a mostly American audience here.
After WWII, Canada had a strong aircraft industry of its own. Avro Canada had built Lancaster Bombers under contract and boasted some very talented aircraft designers and engineers.
Canada had produced its own jet fighter, the CF-100 "Canuck". Not to be confused with the North American F-100 of which it has no connection.
Canadian Air and Space Museum, Ottawa
The Canadian government was worried that the CF-100 would be outclassed by newer Soviet bombers. A request was placed for a supersonic interceptor and Avro Canada came through with a proposal that ultimately became the CF-105 Arrow.
Note that I said interceptor and not fighter. There is a bit of a distinction.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, military aircraft were more specialized than they are today. A "fighter" was designed primarily to shoot down other fighters while an "interceptor" was designed to defend against bombers.
Today military aircraft are so expensive that we make them do multiple jobs to get our money's worth. Something like an F-16 today might do either job depending on how you configure it.
Back then, fighters were nimble little sports cars while interceptors were big powerful muscle cars - lots of straight line performance but not very agile. An interceptor needed to get off the ground in a hurry, climb like a rocket and go like hell in a straight line.
An interceptor also needs a decent radar and preferably a radar-guided missile so that it can find its target at night or in bad weather. No guarantee that the bad guys are going to show up on a sunny day. In the 1950s and into the 1970s this sometimes meant adding a second crew member to operate the radar (F-101, F-4, F-14). All of this means we're going to need a bigger plane.
Finally, Canada has some unique requirements. It's a big country and much of it is cold and remote. We really don't want to eject over the Northwest Territories in December. We'd be long since frozen by the time anyone came and got us. So we'd better stick a second engine on this thing just to be sure. We also want lots of gas because we've got a lot of ground to cover.
This gives you a good idea of just how big this thing was.
Performance was very impressive and equaled or bettered anything developed by the United States, Soviets, French or British at the time.
The Mark 1 prototype hit Mach 2 at 50,000 feet using Pratt & Whitney J75 engines. The Mark 2 with its Canadian Orenda engines never got to fly but they fully expected it to set records. There was a Mark 3 version on the drawing board that might have topped Mach 3.
The Arrow was also the first "fly by wire" aircraft. The control stick used a system of force transducers and artificial feedback to work the flight controls. Way ahead of its time in 1958.
Department of National Defence, Canada
More importantly it never had a decent missile. It was supposed to use the US Navy's Sparrow II missile which was cancelled. The Hughes Falcon missile it was then slated to use was less than adequate. Many of the early USAF interceptors suffered from the same flaw.
The F-101, F-102 and F-106 all carried Falcons and they carried them in an internal weapons bay, just like the Arrow would have. This makes for great performance since there are no pylons or missiles cluttering up the wings. In terms of pure acceleration I've heard stories of '106s and '101s walking away from more modern fighters.
The problem carrying missiles internally is you're stuck with that particular missile for the life of the aircraft. By the late 60's the Falcons were considered to be junk and they certainly hadn't improved much by the late 1980s when the last F-106s were retired.
The Arrow would have been impressive as a pure interceptor but if it ever had to go up against another fighter I think it would have had problems.
Take a good look at that canopy. Forward visibility would have been marginal and rearward visibility nonexistent. Not a problem when you're hunting bombers but no good in a dogfight.
I'm guessing here, but I suspect it's handling would have been similar to an F-106. Delta winged aircraft were notorious for bleeding off speed in a turn. All that wing area acts like a big air-brake when you put some angle of attack on it. If it handled anything like a '106 it would have given you one awesome turn and then you'd be out of airspeed.
Finally there's the issue of not having a gun. The same flaw dogged many a fighter of that era. Most notably the F-4 in Vietnam.
Not being a fighter guy I'm speculating here, but in a dogfight an Arrow would probably have had to employ "zoom and boom" tactics. Make a high speed missile pass and run like hell to set up for another pass. That's how something like an F-104 or a MiG-25 would fight.
So what probably would have been was a great airframe hampered by flawed missiles. With upgrades it may well have served into the 1980s and possibly into the early 1990s.
Of course we'll never know. In a story known all too well to Canadians the Diefenbaker government cancelled the Arrow program in 1959 as a cost saving measure. They felt that the threat from Soviet missiles was a bigger worry than bombers. A similar move took place in the UK at the same time, and several promising interceptor designs were scrapped. Even the Lightning barely escaped the chopping block.
Now I hate to say this, but they were party right. After 1959 the Russians went in big for ICBMs and their bombers were never nearly the threat we made them out to be. Plus the Arrow program was massively over budget.
Where they really went wrong was when they decided to base American BOMARC missiles in Canada. The BOMARC was an early surface-to-air missile that never really lived up to expectations and was phased out in 1972. Plus it carried a nuclear warhead which carried political issues of its own. At least on this side of the border it's not well known that nuclear weapons were once based in Canada.
In 1961 Canada decided that they really could use a manned interceptor and ended up buying F-101s from the United States. They probably spent more on BOMARC and the F-101 than it would have cost just to finish the Arrow.
The Arrow prototypes were cut up for scrap and all plans were destroyed, supposedly to keep them out of Soviet hands (insert conspiracy theory here).
The Diefenbaker government fell in 1963 over the controversy of basing nuclear weapons in Canada (both the BOMARC and the F-101 carried nuclear weapons).
Avro Canada shut down and was later bought out by Hawker Siddeley which today is part of Bombardier Transportation. They make trains. I rather like trains, but they're not Avro Arrows.
Canada's aerospace industry was lost almost overnight. All those talented engineers and designers moved on to companies in the United States and the UK. Many were involved with the space program in the US and Concorde in the UK (it's always just "Concorde" not "The Concorde") .
Recently a proposal was floated to revive the Arrow instead of purchasing F-35s from the US. I actually think that's an interesting idea. If (and that's a very big if) your only concern is defending Canadian airspace from bombers, a modernized Arrow would be better suited than the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none F-35.
CBC television ran a somewhat fictionalized mini-series about the Arrow a few years ago. It stars Dan Akroyd and is entertaining if not historically accurate. It's worth watching if you can find a copy. I bought mine at the museum in Ottawa.
There is a legend that one of the Arrow prototypes was spirited away and escaped the scrap yard. Who knows? I for one like to imagine that there's still one out there somewhere.