Saturday, September 15, 2012

There Will Never Be An Arrow

The Canadian Conservative government's decision to choose Grumman Northrop's F-35 joint strike fighter as the (recently reinstated as "Royal") Canadian Air Force's next-generation combat aircraft has been controversial, to say the least.  Many have criticized the aircraft as being too costly and, more importantly, unsuited to the Canadian air force's needs.  Combine that with the the ongoing technical problems that Northrop is having with the aircraft, it's apparent failure to meet projected performance specifications thus far and the fact that production and delivery are well behind schedule and there is arguably cause for concern.  So it didn't come as much of a surprise when I read in the news this past week that a Canadian group has suggested that an alternative aircraft should be considered.  What did come as a surprise is that the proposed alternative was the CF-105 Avro Arrow.

In case you're one of the approximately three people on the planet who have never heard of the Avro Arrow, I'll recap very briefly here by explaining that the Arrow was a next-generation long-range interceptor designed and built for the Royal Canadian Air Force by the now-defunct Avro Aircraft Company back in the nineteen-fifties.  It was generations ahead of its time and boasted performance not thought possible during that era so, after pouring millions of dollars into R&D and successfully building five viable, flying prototypes, the Conservative government of the day took the next logical step (in their minds, at least) and canceled the program entirely, masterfully decimating an industry, writing off all the money spent on the program to that date, to say nothing of the potential revenue from sales to foreign interests, destroying Avro Aircraft along with the jobs of all of its employees and opening the sluice gates for Canada's best and brightest engineers and technicians to be flushed southward across the Canadian/American border where they were immediately scooped up by American organizations such as Rockwell, Boeing and NASA.

All that notwithstanding, and as big an aviation buff and admirer of the Avro Arrow as I am, my initial reaction was still to chuckle when I first read the headline announcing the suggestion to reinstate it.  I mean, seriously?  Return to 1959 aviation technology?  Sure it was advanced for its time, but the electronics ran on vacuum tubes for crying out loud!  Surely this was the pipe dream of some Arrow fan-boy club.

As I read the article, I learned that my so-called "fan-boy club" included a company called Bourdeau Industries and the likes of retired Major General Lewis MacKenzie, one of Canada's top soldiers, and the group wasn't by any means suggesting that Canada rebuild the Arrow as it was (we couldn't anyway, since all plans, blueprints, drawings and technical documentation were destroyed along with the five aircraft that were built).  No, they were suggesting a new, modern aircraft, based on the Arrow design; a 21st-century Arrow, if you will.  As I read on, my chuckling stopped and gradually morphed into an unbroken chant of "DO-IT-DO-IT-DO-IT-DO-IT-DO-IT...." 

Now, as much as I would love to see the Arrow rise out of its own ashes, like the proverbial Phoenix, I know that it will never, ever happen in a million, billion years.  Why not?  One word; politics.  If Stephen Harper's Conservative government were to actually entertain the idea, it would be tantamount to simultaneously admitting that:

a) Their 1950's Conservative forefathers made a huge mistake in canceling the Arrow program, and...
b) Their support of the F-35 program has been so misguided that a cold war era design is a better fit.

Of course, they might have an interesting "out" if they were to point out that John Diefenbacher's Progressive Conservative party has no direct relationship to Canada's modern Conservative party (which is apparently no longer "progressive").  They could declare that that they, the "New Conservatives" are much more forward-thinking than the "Old Conservatives" and, as such, are bold enough to correct the mistakes of their misguided ancestors, but the Harper government has never been known for that kind of lateral thinking.  So it didn't surprise me at all that their response was that the proposal was "not a viable option" because, apparently, the Arrow wouldn't meet the technical specifications required by the RCAF.

Well, let's look at that claim a little more closely.  I was completely unable to find what the RCAF's technical specifications are (I suppose that the government could credibly offer national security concerns as a reason for not making such information public) so let's go with the next best thing and compare the known performance specs of the two aircraft, side-by-side. 

Avro Arrow
Grumman Northrop F-35
(Source: GlobalSecurity)
50 ft.35 ft.
85.5 ft.50.5 - 51 ft.
Weight (Empty)
43,960 lbs22,500 - 26,500 lbs.
Weight (Max. Take-off)
62,430 lbs.50,000 - 60,000 lbs.
2 Pratt & Whitney J-75
turbofans rated at 23,450 lbs.
thrust each

2 Orenda Iroquois PS.13
turbojets rated at 26,000 lbs.
1 F135 Pratt & Whitney turbofan  or
1 F136 GE turbofan
Both rated at 35,000 - 40,000 lbs
Cruising Speed
701 mph (mach 1.06)Unknown
Max. Speed
1,312 mph (mach 1.98)1,200 mph (mach 1.5 - 1.8)
Climbing Speed
(0 - 50,000 ft)
4 min., 24 sec.Unknown
Operational Ceiling

Those are the basics.  I could give a lot more technical details but I won't bore you with them.  The above comparison doesn't tell us much, especially since several of the F-35's specs are either classified or just undetermined.  The F-35 is a smaller and lighter aircraft than the Arrow, making it a smaller target for enemies, but then the Arrow wasn't designed to be a dogfighter; it was meant to intercept bombers.  Also, the Arrow's large size and weight can probably be mostly attributed to the lack of solid-state electronics in its time.  I'm sure a redesigned, modern Arrow could be significantly smaller and lighter.

Individually, the Arrow's engines put out less thrust than the F-35's, even if you compare the never-tried Orenda Iroquois engine.  However, the Arrow featured two engines whose combined thrust would exceed that of the F-35's single power plant, and that manifests itself in the Arrow's superior maximum speed, even using the inferior J-75 engines which were installed in the prototypes.  Also, it has long been argued that Canadian military aircraft need the security of a second engine in case one fails, due to the extreme conditions in the northern latitudes in which they are often required to operate.

In fairness, it should be noted that the F-35 is designed to be a stealth aircraft whereas the Arrow was decidedly not.  However, stealth properties are much more useful for attack aircraft which need to cross enemy borders without being detected and Canada has traditionally played the role of defender, not aggressor.  Again, the Arrow wasn't designed to go and bomb other nations; it was designed to keep them from bombing us.

None of the above addresses the additional prestige, jobs, talent and economic stimulus that would come from reviving a home-grown aircraft industry as opposed to buying something built outside of Canadian borders.

The Arrow program was canceled, ostensibly due to cost overruns, according to the federal government of the day, although there has been much speculation that this wasn't the true reason.  However, if we accept that at face value, our present-day Conservatives should be hard-pressed to support the F-35 purchase, given that both Canada's auditor general and parliamentary budget officer have projected the cost of that aircraft to be almost twice the original figure reported by the federal government.

In 1979, the CBC released a documentary film about the Avro Arrow and its eventual cancellation entitled, "There Never Was An Arrow".  Based on the Harper government's off-hand dismissal of the interesting proposal to revive the program, it's clear that there will never be an Arrow; not as long as Conservative politicians have any say in the matter, anyway.


Tubes said...

Sadly, as you mentioned, we could not reproduce the Avro. The people and designs are long gone.

I did get to see an engine but not sure which one at of all places, the Parry Sound Museum. Seems that part of the production occurred up there.

Considering how well it still compares to the F35 it is a bloody shame. Canada could have been a leader....

Anonymous said...

The new Arrow could also do something else, and very well, as I suggested to Prime Minister Harper this morning:

Dear Prime Minister Harper,

I am an American, living in Fairbanks, Alaska. This morning, while looking up information on the Avro CF-105 Arrow, I came across recent reports about a proposed revival of this historic aircraft. Looking at the proposed new Arrow design, another application for it (one that is badly needed, and one that would actually make money) fairly "shouted" at me:

With the development of new small, air-launched satellite launch vehicles (SLVs), a need has arisen for aircraft which can launch them. While the U.S. firms Generation Orbit (please see: ) and Premier Space Systems (please see: ) will use a Gulfstream business jet and a demilitarized MiG-21 fighter jet, respectively (for their initial suborbital test rocket--Premier Space Systems intends to procure an F-15A or B to launch their SLV), the higher and faster the launch aircraft can carry the SLV, the smaller the SLV can be. (Or, for an SLV of a given size that is launched from a slower, lower-flying aircraft, its payload can be heavier if it is launched from a faster, higher-flying aircraft). For these reasons, the new Arrow aircraft would make a great (not to mention reusable) air-breathing first stage for these SLVs. Also:

The links below are pertinent to proposed F-15-launched SLVs. The new Arrow could carry larger SLVs than the F-15. Since there is interest in the U.S. Department of Defense in such satellite "quick-launch" options, they might be interested in purchasing--and perhaps even helping to fund--the new Arrow as an air-launching platform for such SLVs. Here are the links: (text-only) (Rascal)

I hope this information will be helpful, Sir.

Sincerely Yours,

James Jason Wentworth

Anonymous said...

When you wrote 'Northrup', did you misspell 'Lockheed Martin'?

Halmanator said...

In my defense, Northrop Grumman is a partner in the project