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Cold War Radar

The Story of the Arrow

The Avro Arrow holds a special place in the hearts of Canadians.  Today it is still remembered fondly as a fantastic work of technology or reversely, as a complete failure.  There does not seem to be much in between.

During the Cold War, The Royal Canadian Air Force, or the RCAF had been using the CF-100 for air defence, but by 1956 it was outdated and was not able to keep up with Soviet bombers.  The only success the plane could have was being controlled by a radar controller.  They needed something new, which ended up being the CF-105 or the Arrow.

Beginning in 1953 the RCAF was looking for a new interceptor.  North America was afraid of what was thought to be the biggest danger at that time, a Soviet bomber, and thus they wanted an interceptor to use against it.  The RCAF came up with AIR-73, a seemingly unrealistic plan.  They wanted their interceptor to have two engines, two seats, be supersonic, use modern radar and fire control, fly above Mach 1.5 and be able to fight within 620 miles of itself.

The RCAF turned to Avro because they had created the Jetline and the Canuck.  The RCAF desired this interceptor, even though at this time no such aircraft existed.  More than that, they wanted 600 of them.  Avro created this aircraft that was ahead of its time and its legacy continues in areas such as the delta wings, titanium, and twin engines.

However, a number of factors outside of Avro itself caused its failure.  The press was harsh against the Arrow, there was a change in government that hurt the project,  and there were problems with both the Douglas-Benix Sparrow II missile and the RCA-Victor Astra radar.  Both of these systems were dropped by September 1958.  There were also problems making it compatible with the NORAD computer system, SAGE.  Finally, the perceived Soviet threat changed from manned bombers to missiles and there was less need for interceptors.

The price skyrocketed from the original $2 million to $12 million per plane.  The British and the United States did not want to take part in it either, so Canada was left on their own.  The new government of Diefenbaker delayed, but then on February 20, 1959, what has been called “Black Friday”, he cancelled the Arrow, leaving 15 000 people in Toronto without jobs.

There have been a number of people portrayed as the bad guy in this story, from Diefenbaker who would not accept the cost of the Arrow, to the RCAF for wanting too much and not adjusting.

The Arrow would have shown the United States and NORAD that Canada was a vital player.  The RCAF still needed interceptors to take part in NORAD though, so they received 66 F-101 Voodoos from the United States in return for taking control of 16 American Pinetree Radars and for building F-104 aircraft for NATO (the US funding 2/3s of this).  Though the Arrow had failed, this new plan was somewhat beneficial because the RCAF got their planes and Canada got some control over defence and jobs.