The death of a dream: The sixtieth anniversary of Avro’s Black Friday

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Ingenium – Canada's Museums of Science and Technology
RL 203 in flight above Malton. The Avro and Orenda facilities are visible below.

Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of the cancellation of the CF-105 Avro Arrow, Canada’s first and only supersonic fighter interceptor. It remains one of the most contentious moments in Canadian aerospace history.

At the time, the cancellation of the program may have seemed like a snap decision. In reality, the Arrow had been on the verge of it for a while. Escalating costs, perceived changes in warfare and the Soviet threat, and a new Progressive Conservative government with a strong mandate to reduce spending, all factored into the decision.

There were concerns about the political fallout (particularly in the Malton riding) as well as potential economic consequences, but in the end, John G. Diefenbaker’s cabinet defence committee recommended that the Arrow be scrapped in early February 1959. His cabinet agreed and formally decided on the cancellation on February 17. Three days later, on February 20, Diefenbaker announced the cancellation in the House of Commons at 9:30 a.m.

It didn’t take long for word of the cancellation to hit the news outlets; within an hour or so, friends and family of Avro employees found out. At 11:15 a.m., an announcement was made over the Malton plant’s loudspeaker informing Avro employees of the government’s decision. They were told that work would continue as normal until more information could be obtained from Ottawa. But that afternoon, Avro President Crawford Gordon came on the loudspeaker to make another announcement: all workers were to stop what they were doing, put down their tools and implements, and go home. Just like that, nearly 15,000 people lost their jobs.

The country’s brightest and most talented engineers were soon forced to look for work elsewhere. Many Avro employees moved to the United States and Great Britain to lend their expertise to amazing projects, like the Apollo program and the Concorde respectively. Others had to leave aviation altogether.

To add insult to injury, the six complete — or largely complete — airplanes were cut up in pieces for scrap, and largely destroyed a couple of months later. The blueprints, drawings, and nearly everything else to do with the Arrow were to suffer the same fate. Despite this being a relatively common practise for classified material, it appeared to many to be a malicious act. Some believe that Diefenbaker ordered the destruction of the airplanes out of spite, essentially to stick it to Crawford Gordon with whom he had a tense relationship. There is no concrete evidence to support this claim, but some believe it to this day.

Fortunately, a lot of paperwork, photographs, and objects associated with the Arrow program have survived. The Canada Aviation and Space Museum’s collection features a great deal of archival material, small objects, and personnel mementos from Avro employees. It also has the privilege of preserving and displaying the largest survivors of the program, the nose section of RL-206 and the wing tips of RL-203.

The Arrow continues to capture the imagination and generate controversy, even 60 years after it was cancelled. It is particularly fascinating considering that the airplane was never tested to its intended capabilities, was never put into production, and never taken on strength by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Despite all this — and perhaps because of it — the Avro Arrow holds a special place in Canadian aerospace history.   

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Erin Gregory

Erin Gregory brings a passion for engaging the public through storytelling to her role as Assistant Curator at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. She strives to deliver historical information in new and interesting ways; she is currently researching how the museum can best utilize gamification to promote its collections and share knowledge with audiences. Erin has curated exhibitions and digital products such as Early Aviation, Life in Orbit, The Starfleet Academy Experience, Ace Academy: Black Flight, Ace Academy: Skies of Fury, and Skies of Fury DX (for Nintendo Switch). Her areas of interest include aviation in the First World War, Canadian airplane manufacturing in the First World War, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, women in Canadian aviation, air traffic control in Canada, the Avro Arrow, and the history of human space flight. Erin earned an MA in Canadian History from Memorial University, a BA in History and English from McMaster University, and a post-graduate diploma in Cultural Resource Management from the University of Victoria. In her spare time, she loves baking and decorating cakes, and spending time her family.