OPINION: The day John Diefenbaker shattered my boyhood dreams

The Avro Arrow was a Canadian aircraft that was years ahead of its time. Photo courtesy, Canada Aviation and Space Museum (KM-02904)

 

One day before my 10th birthday, John George Diefenbaker ended twenty-two years of Liberal rule in Canada.

During the 1957 election campaign, I remember my Dad lifting me up to get a better view of the Progressive Conservative leader as he spoke from the rear platform of a train at the Sarnia station. “Dief the Chief,” as he would come to be known, had the soaring speaking style of a prairie revivalist and he talked of a Canada “on the edge of greatness.”

Though just a boy I became a rabid disciple.

Another prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, had promised the 20th century would belong to Canada, and in least one area of achievement that boast seemed to be coming true.

On Oct. 4, 1957, Avro Canada rolled out its CF-105 Arrow for public viewing. Known simply as the Avro Arrow, the twin-engine fighter interceptor was deemed 20 years ahead of its time.

Aviation and aerospace industry observers hailed it as a remarkable Canadian achievement.

The magazine Flight called the Arrow “the biggest, most powerful, most expensive and potentially the fastest fighter that the world has yet seen.”

In a cover article, Aviation Week Magazine said the Avro Arrow “had given Canada a serious contender for the top military aircraft of the next several years.”

A later (1976) book, Early Supersonic Fighters of the West, described the Arrow as “by a wide margin the most advanced fighter in the world.”

The Avro Arrow could fly three times the speed of sound and up to 60,000 feet. Its key mission was to prevent an attack from enemy aircraft flying over the North Pole and south into Canadian skies.

The plaudits were a justifiable source of pride for all Canadians, and as a 10-year-old boy I was filled with excitement.

But something else happened that very same day that would ultimately doom the Arrow. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, shocking the world by sending a satellite into orbit and marking the beginning of the Space Age.

Sputnik had a profound impact on Prime Minister Diefenbaker. Missiles, he began to think, were the future, not hypersonic aircraft.

And so just two years later, on Feb. 20 1959 (Black Friday), with five test models flying and thirty-two others in various stages of assembly, Diefenbaker abruptly terminated the Avro program, throwing 25,000 people out of work.

In the “brain drain” that followed, 30 of Canada’s best and brightest aerospace engineers left for the United States to join the program that would ultimately put a man on the moon.