Hunting for a Canadian Legend: the Avro Arrow Jet Fighter


“I’ve been interested in the thing since I was a kid, it’s just a piece of Canadian legend,” said Joel Shaver, a 44-year-old police officer from Ottawa. He learned about the Arrow from a family friend and has passed his passion for it along to his son, Ethan, 8, who was with him at the dock last month.

“It was something that could have been,” Mr. Shaver said. “It could have been the best plane in the world for all we know, but they destroyed it before it could have proved itself. That’s why I’m so interested in it.”

Many other Canadians born long after blowtorches were used to cut up the planes also know the story and lament what could have been, stoking the idea, sometimes verging on conspiracy theory, that the Arrow’s cancellation is an example of the United States thwarting a Canadian ambition.

And for a project that was cut down in its prime, the Arrow has enjoyed a remarkable cultural afterlife. Each decade seems to bring yet another Arrow history.

Dan Aykroyd starred in a somewhat fictionalized mini-series about the fighter plane. One museum’s collection boasts a full-size model of the Arrow while another is building a flying replica. The hometown of its test pilot has monuments to both him and the plane.

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Structural testing of a Avro Arrow model for free flight in 1957.

Credit
Canada Aviation and Space Museum

Now members of Toronto’s financial community, led by John Burzynski, the chief executive of the Toronto-based Osisko Mining, have raised about 850,000 Canadian dollars to pay for the sonar search.

There had been failed efforts in the past to hunt for the models, each weighing 500 pounds and about 12 feet long and 10 feet wide. The inspiration to try again came out of a meeting Mr. Burzynski had with several other Canadian businessmen in a Chicago hotel bar about 18 months ago.

At the time, there was considerable attention to an ultimately successful expedition to find two ships from a doomed expedition in the 1840s to map the Northwest Passage through what is now Canada’s Arctic.

“We were looking for something to do in our spare time,” said Mr. Burzynski, whose company holds several gold claims in Ontario and Quebec.

He arrived at the marina, at Quinte’s Isle Campark, as part of the motorcade that included the truck with the ThunderFish Alpha. Dressed in a flight suit, he was behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DB9 convertible decorated to resemble the second Avro Arrow to roll off the assembly line, the RL 202. A mock warning, “JET FUEL ONLY,” was stenciled below the car’s gas cap.

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John Burzynski helped raise money to pay for the submarine search for the plane’s test models.

Credit
Cole Burston for The New York Times

The Avro Arrow was initiated by a postwar Liberal government and was to have been Canada’s main contribution to Norad, the joint air defense alliance with the United States. Powered by two jet engines of a new Canadian design, the Arrow was supposed to swoop up to Canada’s Arctic at nearly twice the speed of sound and shoot down Soviet bombers making their way to North America with nuclear payloads.

Arrow in the Sky, Avro Aircraft: First Flight Video by Canada Aviation Museum

“We probably did have the world’s best supersonic fighter jet in principle,” said Randall Wakelam, a historian at Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, an hour or so to the east of Prince Edward County. “In practice, however, we had all these problems.”

Even by the standards of military programs, the Arrow’s cost spiraled out of control as the manufacturer, the British-owned A.V. Roe Canada, struggled with creating an entirely new aircraft design and new engines while also pioneering electronic flight controls and weapons guidance systems. Then came the launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik, the first satellite.

From that point on, it was assumed that any nuclear Armageddon would be delivered by missiles. Just as its production was ramping up, the Arrow had no more reason for being.

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