Building a legend: The quest to recover the Avro Arrow free-flight models (Part 1)

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On August 12, 2018, Target 084 (now known to be a Delta Test Vehicle) broke the surface of Lake Ontario after spending more than 60 years at the bottom of the lake. The object was carefully packed on a customized cradle, to avoid damage in transit.

The CF-105 Avro Arrow was the first and only supersonic interceptor aircraft designed and built in Canada. In February 1959, the abrupt cancellation of the program sent shockwaves through the Canadian aviation industry, resulting in thousands of lost jobs at Avro and other smaller firms. Many of the company’s brightest minds went on to work at NASA and British Aerospace, lending their talents to programs like Apollo and the Concorde. The cancellation of the program is still one of the most controversial and hotly-debated topics in Canadian aviation history.                  

The design and manufacturing process of the Arrow followed an unusual path for Avro. In order to move from the design phase to production in a very short period of time, Avro employed what is called the Cook-Craigie method. Instead of building a full-scale prototype for testing, companies could collect as much relevant data as possible from wind tunnel models and free flight models (FFMs) to inform the design of an aircraft. It skips the prototype phase altogether, saving time and money.

A total of 11 FFMs were built. Between 1955 and 1957, nine of 11 were launched into Lake Ontario from a test facility at Point Petre, which was operated by the Canadian Armament Research and Development Establishment (CARDE). Two were launched from Wallops Island in Virginia.

At the time, Avro’s objective was to test the aerodynamic stability and other properties of the aircraft’s design at supersonic speeds. Their engineers sought out CARDE’s expertise in launching missiles and other test vehicles for Avro’s first FFM program. The nine models (four crude and five more sophisticated) carried telemetry equipment, which relayed pertinent flight data back to engineers on the ground. Having served their purpose while in flight, the models were never recovered; they are likely the last-known objects related to the development of this Canadian icon not in private or public hands.

A curious, airplane-shaped object

With that in mind, the OEX Recovery Group, a private group led by John Burzynski of Osisko Mining Inc., decided to put together a team of partners from various backgrounds and areas of expertise to attempt to locate and recover the FFMs from the Arrow program. On August 12, 2018, the OEX Recovery Group, with the support of the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI), the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), as well as several contractors and a professional dive team, recovered a curious, airplane-shaped object from the bottom of Lake Ontario — where it had been resting for more than 60 years. The team’s hope was that this object was one of the nine FFMs. While the shape of the object was somewhat consistent with one of the early FFMs, it was covered in approximately 16 kg of zebra mussels so it was difficult to tell for sure.

The Delta Test Vehicle arrives at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum on August 20, 2018. Conservation work by the Canada Conservation Institute, with the support of museum staff, began shortly thereafter.

In order to properly clean it and preserve delicate elements like paint, conservation experts from CCI had to remove the mussels by scalpel. Mussels use filaments to attach themselves firmly to objects or rocks, in order to collect food without getting caught up in moving waters. Each filament has a tiny suction cup at the end which fixes it to a solid surface. All this needed to be carefully removed (even from under flaking paint) in order to proceed with stabilizing the object.

On September 17, 2018, the Delta Test Vehicle was carefully rotated right side up, to allow the team from the Canada Conservation Institute to continue stabilizing the object.

Uncovering a mystery

Once the mussels were mostly removed, the object’s physical characteristics were easier to study. It was clear that it was not one of the FFMs the group had set out to find. So what exactly was this thing? Historical documents were collected and researched thoroughly by Dr. Richard Mayne, chief historian of the RCAF. The dimensions and shape of the object were consistent with diagrams from CARDE for another vehicle entirely, called a Delta Test Vehicle (DTV). Three of these vehicles, cleverly labelled DTV-1, DTV-2, and DTV-3, were fired into Lake Ontario from the facility at Point Petre in 1954: one in late March, one in early April, and one in October.

The big question that remains to be answered is whether or not the DTV is related to the Avro Arrow program. While the documentation so far suggests that it is, the evidence is not yet conclusive. Research is ongoing to determine the exact relationship between the DTV and the Arrow FFMs. There are several possibilities. The DTVs may have been used to test the capabilities of the CARDE firing range itself, for use in the FFM program. It could be that since CARDE was typically testing vehicles with rectangular-shaped fins or small triangular-shaped fins, that the DTVs were used to evaluate firing a vehicle with a larger delta wing configuration.

Some evidence suggests that the DTVs may have been used to test equipment and technology slated for use in the FFMs, such as a moveable elevator system. Movable elevators would enable engineers on the ground to examine data from the models as they pitched up and down while in free flight. The feasibility of this would have been pertinent to the design and equipment of the FFMs.     

What we do know for sure is that representatives from A.V. Roe were present at the firing of the third DTV in October 1954. They were not present at the second firing and the documents for the first firing have not been located as yet. So why were they not present at the second firing, and were they there for the first? Uncovering the answers to these question will be difficult and time-consuming, but could help to determine the exact nature of the relationship between the DTV and the FFMs.

As conservation work continues, further study of the DTV will hopefully shed some light on its history, and its exact relationship to the Arrow. The nose cone section of the DTV was removed on September 26, 2018, giving us the first peek at the instruments inside the vehicle’s fuselage. The instruments themselves might provide some additional clues to help solve the mystery.

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Sonia Mendes

Sonia Mendes is the English Writer/Editor for Ingenium. She loves digging behind the scenes to tell the quirky, colourful stories of museum life and all things related to science and innovation.