Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Rise and Fall of Avro Canada

This summer British aviation fans are being treated to the rare sight of the last two airworthy Lancasters flying together. This has been made possible by the arrival of Vera, a Canadian built Lancaster Mark X now owned by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.

During the Second World War, the threat to British factories posed by enemy bombing prompted the establishment of 'shadow factories' for aircraft production in Canada. Here, safe from the threat of bombs, aircraft could be built under licence, sticking scrupulously to the same specifications as their British built counterparts, ensuring that there would be no difficulties with spares once on front line duty.

Lancaster Mark X

The largest of these 'shadow factories' was Victory Aircraft in Malton Ontario, set up in 1941. The factory was initially intended to build the twin engined Avro Anson, a somewhat obsolete aircraft used predominantly for training bomber crews and deployed in large numbers by the Canadians in an anti U boat role. In 1942 however the decision was taken to commence production of the new Lancaster. Between 1943 and 1945 the factory turned out 430 Lancasters as well as producing over 3000 Avro Ansons, employing almost ten thousand workers at its height. Vera rolled off the production line at Victory Aircraft in July 1945, too late to play an active role in WW2. She nevertheless enjoyed a career with the RCAF as a maritime patrol aircraft, serving until 1963.

With the war over, it was questionable whether Canada needed to maintain its wartime aircraft industry. Wartime Munitions minister and arch moderniser CB Howe, known during the war as the Minister of Everything, championed the industrialisation of the Canadian economy and was keen to develop a home grown aviation industry. Howe oversaw the sale of Victory Aircraft to the British Hawker Siddeley group whereafter it became Avro Canada.

C102 Jetliner
The first project for the new company was to be the world's first commercial jet airliner. The C102 Jetliner first flew in August 1949, having been beaten into the air by the De Havilland Comet by just 13 days. Initial interest in the plane from TWA aviation mogul Howard Hughes seemed to promise a bright future for the Jetliner but the outbreak of the Korean War put an end to development efforts. Avro Canada was instead put back on a military footing and the Jetliner project was cancelled in 1951.

Efforts instead now focused on the CF100 Canuck. This was a twin engined all-weather interceptor whose primary role was to take on Soviet nuclear bombers in the event of the Cold War turning hot. Between 1950 and 1955 692 aircraft were built. The prototype Mark 4 variant broke the sound barrier in a vertical dive in the hands of Battle of Britain veteran turned Avro test pilot Janusz Zurakowski. Some Canucks continued to serve in a training role with the RCAF until 1981.

CF100 Canuck

The Canuck was rapidly rendered obsolete by the appearance of jet powered bombers and a replacement was required. This was to be the CF105 Arrow. The Arrow was designed to meet a demanding list of specifications set down by the RCAF which no existing or planned aircraft anywhere in the world could meet. The Arrow would be required to reach Mach 1.5 in level flight, reach an altitude of 70,000 feet and perform 2G turns at supersonic speed. Avro's charismatic president Crawford Gordon committed the company to meeting the requirements and doing so with an all-Canadian designed and built aircraft. The Arrow would be powered by the new Iraquois engine built by Avro's engine subsidiary Orenda. It was an incredibly ambitious approach. The airforce were suitably convinced however and $236 million of Canadian taxpayers' money was stumped up for the development of the aircraft and the delivery of 35 operational Arrows.

Despite setbacks, the first cutting edge aircraft rolled out on 4th October 1957 and an intensive programme of testing commenced. Due to complications with the engine development, the Iraquois engine would not be fitted in an Arrow until the sixth prototype. The Arrow achieved close to Mach 2 using the stand in Pratt and Whitney engine. With the lighter, more powerful Iraquois it was expected to break all records for speed and altitude. Sadly, it would never get the chance and the all Canadian Arrow would never fly.

CF105 Arrow

The Arrow programme would fall victim to a combination of events. The ousting in 1957 of the Canadian liberal government by their conservative rivals, who were determined to cut military spending did not bode well for Avro and the spiralling costs of the engine programme did not endear them to the new administration. The death blow however came on the very same day that the first Arrow rolled out of the hanger. For this was the day that Sputnik was launched.

Sputnik changed everything. All at once the world had entered a rocket age and what use now was an overpriced jet interceptor designed to shoot down bombers? Under the 1957 NORAD defence agreement the US committed to supplying Canada with the new Bomarc surface to air missile, itself an untested and ultimately unreliable design. Whilst the government dithered over its defence options the Arrow programme continued for another year but in February 1959 the plug was pulled on the Arrow. It was a catastrophic blow for the Canadian aviation industry and wider economy and spelled the end of Avro Canada. By this time Avro Canada employed almost 15,000 people on production of the Arrow, all of whom were immediately laid off. Perhaps as many again working for subcontracted companies also lost their jobs as a result of the cancellation of the Arrow programme. The lack of prospects resulted in a brain drain of Canada's best and brightest to the US. Many of the top engineers at Avro left the country for good and found roles in the US aerospace industry. Several members of the Arrow design team went on to work on the US Space Programme.

Despite interest from Britain and the US in purchasing the six completed Arrows, on the orders of the Canadian government they were cut up in an act of short sighted vandalism and all related material was destroyed. The Arrow had been a source of immense national pride in Canadian technological achievement. Now it seemed the Canadian government wished to obliterate its memory altogether.

Artist's impression of the Avrocar in action

The Arrow was not the most advanced of Avro Canada's projects. Tucked away in an old building on the Malton site was the Special Projects Group headed up by maverick engineer John 'Jack' Frost. With funding from the US army and air force, Frost and his team developed the flying saucer-like Avrocar. It was intended to serve as a kind of flying jeep, hovering on a cushion of air, capable of flying over the landscape at 300mph or soaring to a height of 10,000 feet. In the event, problems with stability restricted it to a modest 35mph at no more than 3 feet off the ground. The project was cancelled in 1961 and Avro Canada closed its doors shortly after. They had dared to dream, but reality can be cruel to dreamers.

Vera the Canadian Lancaster

Lancaster Mark X

Documentaries on Avro Canada

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