Sixty years ago today an event took place that changed Canadian society, the effects of which are still felt, something which would have a major impact my life, though I didn’t know it at the time.
In a move that was either absolutely insane or fiscally prudent, the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker canceled the Canadian fighter plane program. The four existing prototypes were destroyed that day, cut into pieces for scrap.
The CF-105, more commonly known as the Avro Arrow, was the most advanced fighter jet in the world. Even today it would be highly advanced, a better plane than the CF-18 presently flown by the Royal Canadian Air Force. With the natural technical improvements that would have come from over time, it would still be the best fighter plane in the world.
The government portrayed the cancelation as fiscally responsible. That may be true – developing a new fighter is expensive. Canada’s next planes, the ones replacing the CF-18s, are expected to cost in excess of a billion dollars each. The government of the day may have felt we couldn’t, as a small country, afford to develop the best aerospace industry in the world. The visionaries say it was an opportunity missed, that he program would have more than paid for itself in foreign sales.
Conspiracy theorists paint a harsher picture. They say the program was canceled due to American pressure. The Yanks didn’t want Canada to have a better plane than they did. Plus, they wanted us to buy their nuclear-tipped Bomarc missiles.
Books have been written, documentaries made, and we will probably never know the truth about the Arrow. It is true that the Americans would probably not have put a man on the moon had the Arrow gone into production. Many of the brightest engineers, suddenly out of work, were recruited by NASA for the Apollo program. There have been rumors for years that NASA recruiters were at the gates of the plant the day it closed, signing up the laid-off engineers. Was NASA tipped off in advance about the decision? We’ll probably never know.
I’m not going to go into the details. You can try this documentary that I remember fondly from 40 years ago. But there is the personal element. If not for the cancellation of the Arrow I probably would not have met my wife.
Sixty years ago, my wife’s parents were living in Renfrew, Ontario, having moved there from England. Her father, an engineer, worked for Renfrew Aircraft (I think he may have been the president of the company). The firm was working on the engines which would take the Arrow to new heights. Cancelation of the program meant the eventual end of the company. He moved to Ottawa for his next venture. It was in Ottawa his children were born. It was in Ottawa that I met his eldest daughter, fell in love and got married. If the Arrow had continued, they would probably never have moved to Ottawa and we possibly would never have met.
As a Canadian I mourn the loss of the Arrow. It is part of our national myth. We were the best in the world at something – and stopped doing it. I’m not sure what that says about us as a nation. As a nationalist I am appalled we did that. But it sure worked out well for me.