In the aerospace boom following the Second World War, a number of advanced jet airplanes took to the skies. These designs were aided in part by improved jet engine performance that progressed in leaps and bounds and allowed for supersonic flight. Led by the United States, a number of designs set previously unimaginable records, from breaking the speed of sound, to Mach 3 flight.
Some of the best designs also came out of the British and Soviet aerospace programs, and the French too built some competitive jet-engine airplanes. Notwithstanding huge challenges, one country decided they would not be left behind on the aerospace front, but become a world-class fighter jet exporter: Canada.
Despite being a small country, Canada punched above its weight in aerospace design. Avro’s Canadian subsidiary designed both the long-lived CF-100 Canuck, a twin-engine interceptor, as well as the Avrocar a flying saucer-like vehicle that pioneered vertical takeoff, as well as several other jet designs. In a word, Canadian aerospace was competitive. But Avro didn’t just want to be competitive, Avro wanted to become an aerospace heavyweight.
Interesting and versatile as Avro’s designs were, they were absolutely dwarfed by the Avro Arrow.
Aided by a number of then-cutting edge design considerations, the Arrow was the world’s most advanced jet fighter. In essence, the Arrow was a twin-engine, delta-wing airplane. And it was fast—really fast. During flight testing, the Arrow nearly broke Mach 2, and it was thought that the Arrow’s upper speed limit had not yet been reached.
In order to maintain flight stability at the blisteringly high speeds the Arrow was capable of, Avro engineers developed the world’s first fly-by-wire system, a computed-aided flight control system that prevented the airplane from flying out of control. The Arrow’s airframe and wings used advanced new materials, and its lightweight Iroquois engines provided a powerful, high-performance powerpack.
The Arrow was so fast, so cutting edge, that some flight tests couldn’t be done in Canadian facilities, but had to be done in the United States at NACA (later NASA) facilities. In the United States the Avro team made a big impression, and their obvious talent would later be tapped for a number of space programs and contribute to American space-race success.
At the time of its inception, Avro’s Arrow was the Cadillac of jet fighters. Uncompromising and incredibly high-performance, it wasn’t cheap either. Both the United States and Britain passed on the design, preferring to give priority to their own domestic aerospace companies, and Canada couldn’t afford to buy the Arrow in large numbers.
Ultimately the Arrow was doomed both by its price point, and by changing political winds. The Arrow project was ordered to a halt by the Canadian government and all five prototypes were to be scrapped, effectively dooming Avro and putting the company out of business.
Despite the Arrow’s lack of success and Avro’s subsequent demise, the program put Canada on the map in a big way: today Canada is counted among the world’s top five aerospace countries in terms of industry size.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.