By Jack Schofield
I had a good friend, David Marshall, who was the last person to touch a hot Iroquois, and I am not referring to that indigenous tribe of native peoples, but to the Jet engine of the same name. The name, Iroquois, was adopted by Avro Canada to identify the gas turbine engine they had developed to power the famous CF-105 Avro Arrow interceptor. The name ‘Iroquois’ best translates as a ‘spirit of power’ and that jet engine certainly fit the name as the most powerful advanced turbojet in the Cold War world of the 1950s.
Marshall was in charge of a test bay at Avro Canada’s then new 710,000 sq. foot (66,000 square metre) jet engine production plant at Malton, Ontario. He had just run a power test on the Iroquois when word came down from above that it and the Avro Arrow itself were to be cut up and all blueprints and engineering data destroyed while the 14000 Avro employees were to be laid off and must now apply for what was then called Unemployment Insurance. This day would later be dubbed, ‘Black Friday’—February 20, 1959.
However, this is not another Avro Arrow story. This is an ‘Iroquois’ story and an ‘Orenda’ story and a ‘Chinook’ story—these are the names of jet engines developed in Canada by both private industry and the Canadian Taxpayer, the latter being a particularly apathetic species who never seems to notice when he is being taken down the road. He was certainly taken down the road when they cut up the Iroquois, because the Canadian taxpayer had an historical involvement in its design, and had footed the bill for early experimentation of jet engines in Canada, through the National Research Council (NRC), that had placed this country on the top rung of the world’s aerospace industry.
Back in 1942, with the Second World War raging, the National Research Council of Canada, funded by the Canadian taxpayer, sent two engineers to Britain to look at what Frank Whittle, the jet engine inventor, was doing with the development of his fabulous engine. It was determined that Canada might well play a significant role in jet turbine design and one of Whittle’s engines was provided for study as was a captured German gas turbine—the Junkers Jumo 004, which was then being developed in Nazi Germany.
Correctly assessing the need to develop improvements on the then infant aircraft jet engine, the NRC set up a Jet Turbine laboratory in which Canadian engineers studied and built an experimental jet turbine they named the ‘Chinook.’ The accumulated engineering data achieved from this tax-payer funded laboratory work was made available to Avro’s gas turbine division in the creation of the ‘Orenda’ turbojet engine which was to power Avro’s successful CF-100 ‘Canuck’ interceptor aircraft and would re-power the North American F86 ‘Sabre’ jet fighter for the Royal Canadian Air Force. For the vaunted CF-105 Avro Arrow, still on the drawing board at this time, this early research paid off in the further development of a jet engine that would surpass in power output per pound of weight anything in the world at that time—the ‘Iroquois’ developed the then unheard of thrust of 26000 pounds (11000 kilograms) in the summer of 1956, and was flight-tested from a unique installation on what was then referred to as an ‘atom bomber’—the giant Boeing B47, supplied to Avro by the United States Air Force (USAF) who had evidenced a keen interest in the Avro Arrow and Iroquois program. One of the principal reasons for this engine’s ability to develop such power was through the first-time-ever use of the lightweight metal, Titanium, for much of the engine’s components. The use of this rare metal reduced the weight of the engine by some 850 pounds. Significantly, Avro initiated the use of this metal at a time when it wasn’t even being produced as a commercial product, and in this respect created, a new industry in the mining, smelting and supply of Titanium to industry.
However, back to the initial proposition of this article being that the taxpayers were apathetic to the ultimate cancellation and destruction of the very jet engine toward which they had invested their hard-earned research tax dollars.
There is an unsupported story of a visit to Canada by U.S. President, Dwight Eisenhower, during which time he and then Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, went out rowing on Lake Ontario. This much is true, but as they were far from shore their conversation could not be overheard. They were reported to be not fishing but talking rather earnestly and the U.S. president was seen to wag his finger quite often. True or not, when the prime minister, returned to the House he cancelled the Avro Arrow project and demanded also that the amazing ‘Iroquois’ jet engine fall to the axe along with the Arrow. No one has yet to figure why the destruction of these great achievements was necessary. To the government’s concerns of cost over-runs there was the good possibility of developing a Canada-U.S. joint project as the USAF were very keen and were helping out willingly, but there is some evidence and much conjecture that U.S. aircraft manufacturer’s were at the centre of this demand with heavy lobbying to Washington for a ‘buy U.S’. policy on armaments. Boeing, North American, Northrop and General Dynamics certainly stood to benefit from the shut down of a project that was far ahead of their own developments. Canada was suddenly a leader in the world with the Iroquois and 9 years (nine years!) ahead of Boeing in putting a jet transport into the air, but was, with a single stroke, plunged to the bottom of the heap and was never to recover that exalted position in the world’s aerospace industry. Those indifferent taxpayers were told that Canada was too small a country to handle such advanced aviation technology, and best we stick to building grain elevators, the complexity of which, John Diefenbaker, the architect of this aviation disaster, was very familiar.
On that Black Friday of February 20th, 1959 fourteen thousand (14,000) Avro employees were fired and went on Employment Insurance while eight thousand, six hundred (8,600) employees of sub-contracting companies bit the dust and bankruptcies resulted from a political act that could best be described as, criminally negligent. Along with all those unemployed people, and the resulting brain drain of aviation engineering expertise to the United States, the Spirit of Power disappeared into history and the general public didn’t seem to notice the passing.
As a matter of interest, one of the political reason given for discontinuing the Avro Arrow interceptor was that all manned interceptor aircraft were now out of date (this was 1959 in the middle of the cold war) and therefore no longer required. Strangely, only four days (4 days) after Avro’s ‘coupe de grace’ was echoing through the halls of infamy, the Progressive Conservative Minister of Defense, George Pearkes, approached Avro Canada to determine if they were interested in building the Grumman Super Tiger interceptor aircraft for the U.S. armed forces and, “Oh by the way, could you supply a jet engine for this new design?”
Avro Canada went down with dignity, and closed its doors forever.
Does this raise any questions about the current order for interceptor aircraft by our present government, or should today’s taxpayers continue to take a lesson from the past and keep their heads firmly entrenched in the sand?
Footnote: The Avro ‘Jetliner’ which had been flying for two years and had accumulated orders from Howard Hughes’ TWA, for some 47 aircraft, was not subject to the “desist and destroy” order. Instead, it mouldered away behind a hangar somewhere in Malton and was ultimately cut up for scrap when there was no Avro Canada to proceed with the project. Howard Hughes even offered to buy the factory, but was turned down by the Prime Minister, John Diefenbacker, who by the way, has since had an icebreaker named after him. Significantly the ship is a thin-skinned vessel not able to break the real ice of the North West Passage—a fitting definition for this politician.