The Avro Arrow

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. After leaving college in Toronto I went to work for IBM Canada as an engineer. At first it was servicing the old punched card accounting machines that generated the money for IBM. It was the dawn of the computer era and after 6 months of training during 1958 I was assigned to the new IBM 704 scientific computer based at the A V Roe plant on the outskirts of Toronto along with 2 other technicians. The 704 was only one of 15 ever made and had some massive computing power which included 2 x 512 k magnetic core memory stacks, 6 high speed tape readers, punched card input reader and the huge mechanical line form printer on the right of the photo.

IBM 704 LJ at Console

Me at the console of the 704. The 2 giant magnetic core memory stacks are on the left with the mainframe just to the left of where i am sitting. the 5 727 Tape drives on the right with the 407 line printer on the far right. just behind my back is the 80 column IBM high speed card reader which is how info was entered into the computer

The mainframe had 8000 valves, 117 miles of wiring and a fantastic clock speed of 8 MHz. It was programmed in Fortran language and had a 32 bit binary word as it’s data on the wire buses. The room required tons of air-conditioning to keep it cool. You can see all the parts of the machine in the photo. And yes… that’s me at the console. I was 23 at the time.

The A.V. Roe Aircraft Company of Canada was building the Avro Arrow and the 704 was to be used for design work. The aircraft was a revolutionary jet interceptor, designed and built by Canadians. The delta winged Arrow was a plane of firsts: fly by wire, computer control, and integral missile system and capable of MACH 2+. The COLD WAR with the Soviet block was raging. The 704 Computer was of course cutting edge technology and it was my job to bring up power every morning and run round robin tests before handing it over to the customer. It took three of us to keep it working 16 hours a day and all hell broke loose if it went down for more than an hour.

Avro was also working on some other top secret stuff for the US Air Force but the Avro Arrow was the project of the day being built for the Canadian Government. The company was working on a short time frame as the Americans didn’t have anything close to it. Mach 2+ was unheard of in those days in an aircraft that would fill a bomber/fighter role and the Canadians wanted to sell it to the world. You can see the history of the Arrow if you type “Avro Arrow” into Google. You will see dozens of wonderful sites.

This was the RL-201; the first Avro Arrow to ever fly sitting on the tarmac at Malton Airport as the engineers readied it for a test flight.

Period: Postwar
Uses: Interceptor
First Flight: 1958
Manufacturer: A.V. Roe Canada Ltd.
Wing Span: 50 ft (15.2 m)
Length: 85 ft 6 in (26.1 m)
Height: 21 ft 3 in (6.5 m)
Weight Empty: 43,960 lb (19,935 kg)
Weight Gross: 62,431 lb (28,319 kg)
Cruising Speed: 701 mph (1,128 km/h)
Max Speed: 1,524 mph (2,453 km/h)
Rate Climb: 50,000 ft (15,240 m)/4 min 24 sec
Service Ceiling: 58,500 ft (17,830 m)
Range: 264 mi (425 km)
Power: two Orenda Iroquois axial flow turbojet engines, 26,000 lb (11,791 kg) static thrust, with afterburner

The Americans felt that the future was in unmanned guided missiles and specifically didn’t want Canada to develop the aircraft. In spite of that The RL201, one of 3 that actually flew (RL102 and RL103 were the others) flew and amazed all by its performance. At this point it didn’t have the more powerful Orenda engines in it which were scheduled for the RL206 so it could get past Mach 2. Regular test flights were made over southern Ontario above mach 1.5

Avro Arrow RL201 The Arrow was poised to become the fastest aircraft on the planet, but some critics were asking if it mattered anymore. The Soviets and Americans were racing into the age of missile defence. The U.S.-built Bomarc missile was now front and centre in North American defence strategy. The Arrow, built to chase bombers was on shaky ground.

In a day that would soon become known as “Black Friday.” at 11:00 a.m. on Feb. 20, 1959, Prime Minister Diefenbaker stood before the House of Commons and made the unexpected announcement to a stunned Parliament that the Arrow and Iroquois engine programs are terminated immediately. 14,750 workers were laid off that day and the nation was gob smacked. I watched them leave the plant, many in tears. Rumour had it the President of the USA and the Canadian Prime Minister went fishing and the deal was nutted out that the government would buy the useless Bomark missiles which they did within a year.

The six Arrow aircraft sat in the hangers with all the jigs and equipment for 3 months and one day the scrap metal teams moved in and cut them with gas axes over a week and they were gone. My fellow IBMers and I were witness to all of the above as IBM still had the contract for another 9 months after Black Friday and Avro had to pay for the 704. We used to hand the computer over to the non-existent customer and then teach ourselves programming and write simple games programs during the day when we had nothing to do. The plant was sad and empty place but we had the opportunity to see the Arrow up close. There was a group of US Air force guys and a small team of engineers working in a hanger over on the other side of the tarmac about 500 yards away. We often heard the screaming of jet engines but the area was highly restricted for us. I didn’t have enough coloured dots on my ID tag to go there. Rumour was it was a revolutionary vehicle called the AvroCar – a real Flying Saucer!

There is an article about the Avrocar with photos on another page in this blog. The IBM contract with Avro terminated nine months later and we took the machine to the Toronto Data Centre at Eglington and Bayview streets in north Toronto where it was re-assembled and IBM was renting it at $32,000 per hour of computing time to the University of Toronto, various insurance and oil companies and were recovering their investment that way.

I was a ham those days. My call was VE3OE and each day I left for the A. V. Roe Company from the East side of Toronto and travelled 30 miles to Malton and their manufacturing plant plant. It was all 75M mobile in those times and the first 2M repeater in Toronto, VE3RPT was just being built by my club. You can access it now, 45 years later through IRLP! I had an Elmac AF67 and a Gonset 3-30 converter in my new 1958 Volkswagen Beatle with a huge centre loaded 75M whip mounted on the back. It was all 6 Volt stuff in those days and hard going in the Toronto winter.

They were interesting times. It was only a few years later that the Americans got themselves involved in the Cuban Missile crisis. AVRO was fully shut down by then. The only piece of the Arrow left is in the Aviation Museum in Ottawa Ontario. The huge nose cone and cockpit shows what it was like and what it promised to deliver. Most of the Canadians who worked with the leading edge technology of the day went South and were hired by NASA. The Canadians like to think that their technical expertise was responsible for putting a man on the moon. And indeed they were part of it. The Avro plant is still in the same place although the runways are now filled with houses. I had the pleasure of seeing the place in 1997. It was all a bit sad really!

Some lessons can be learned from the saga.
1. Always expect a government and politicians to do the unexpected because they have the power to do so. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was hated man after that and was dumped from office the next election.
2. There is a “Window of Opportunity” for every enterprise. If it’s not completed during the time the window is open the project will fail.
3. Never go to bed with an Elephant. If he unexpectedly rolls over during the night, he will crush you to death.
New Zealand was isolated from the rest of the world in the 1950s and 1960s and many of you have never heard of this wonderful, trend setting aircraft that was brilliantly designed by the Canadians and killed by a cruel unthinking stupid government.

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