Broken arrow

In 1959, the Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow was one of the most sophisticated aircraft prototypes in the world. When the project was cancelled, the Canadian government ordered all Arrows, parts, production equipment, and technical data destroyed.

Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow
Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow
Don Rogers, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

Today the Cold War is most commonly portrayed as a series of proxy wars and an arms race of nuclear weapons. Who has more missiles, who has more sophisticated missiles? But it was also a race in terms of where and how those missiles could be deployed, and whether or not they could be intercepted. In the 1950s, it was a question of the aircraft that carried nuclear missiles. How many bombers did the Soviet Union and the United States have, and how far could they fly to drop their bombs? Could the United States and the Soviet Union intercept those bombers before they got to their targets?

The “bomber gap” caused considerable anxiety in the West. The Soviet Union had a bomber – the Myasishchev M-4 – that could (theoretically) fly over the Arctic, drop a bomb, and then fly back again.

(Side note: its range was not actually that impressive, but the perception of its range was the important thing. When the Soviets showed off the M-4 at an air show in 1955, they flew ten overhead… then looped those ten around and flew them past again with eight more. The West believed they had just witnessed 28 long-range bombers, assumed that it was in mass production, and panicked.)

The Canadian air force’s response to the bomber gap was a new supersonic aircraft design that could intercept and shoot down Soviet attacks. This was the Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow. Part of the new wave of delta wing aircraft, the Arrow could launch quickly and was exceptionally fast in the air (Mach 1.9). But it was also extremely expensive, and the landscape of the Cold War was about to shift dramatically.

The Arrow was publicly unveiled on October 4, 1957. It was a masterpiece of aviation technology – it was reasonably expected to vie for the world speed and altitude records. But it was also incredibly unlucky. October 4, 1957, was an important day for another reason: the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. Sputnik completely overshadowed Arrow’s debut. It also preluded a new risk: intercontinental missiles that could not be intercepted by planes.

The bomber gap was gone; now there was a missile gap instead. The Arrow was a victim of advancing technology. With the plane’s raison d’être gone, the Canadian government cancelled the whole programme in 1959. But they didn’t just cancel it, they burned it to the ground.

Canada feared that Soviet moles or spies would get their hands on the technology. So, they ordered the destruction of “all aircraft, engines, production tooling and technical data” relating to the plane. A multi-million dollar programme effectively disappeared in a matter of days.

(Side note: apparently it wasn’t just paranoia. The Soviets were very interested in the programme; it got a mention in records from the KGB archivist of the time.)

Some fragments of the Arrow survive. Parts were smuggled out of the facilities prior to the cancellation – they are now on display in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. A draftsperson saved the blueprints (he took them home rather than destroying them). A scale model of the plane was found at the bottom of Lake Ontario where it had crashed after a test “flight.” And there are rumours and conspiracy theories that an intact and functioning plane survived as well – although no proof has ever emerged on that one.

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